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Web Chat: Pakistan’s Flood Emergency

On September 15, Elizabeth Ferris answered your questions about the recent Pakistan floods, specifically the short- and long-term challenges faced by the Pakistani government and the international community in responding to the disaster. David Mark, senior editor at POLITICO, moderated the discussion.

12:30 David Mark: Hello and welcome to the discussion. Let's get started.

12:30 [Comment From Linda: ] What are the most important humanitarian needs at this time?

12:31 Elizabeth Ferris: About 21 million people have been affected by the floods and the needs are enormous. 1.8 million homes were damaged or destroyed -- that's a major concern.

12:32 Elizabeth Ferris: And, of course, there are health concerns as well -- particularly as people are living in crowded environments -- and there are fears of a cholera or malaria outbreak.

12:32 [Comment From Marcus: ] Was there any way to know this flood was coming, and to prepare for it in advance?

12:33 Elizabeth Ferris: Yes, flooding is a regular occurrence in Pakistan, but this year's floods were way out of proportion to anything that has happened before. The government did respond to floods in the north by evacuating people, in large numbers, in the regions to the South, especially in Punjab and Sindh.

12:33 [Comment From Mike: ] What is the Government of Pakistan doing to help its citizens? How does this compare with international efforts?

12:33 Elizabeth Ferris: The government has tried to respond quickly, and the Pakistani military has played the leading role in mobilizing the government's disaster response, but the scale of the crisis is such that international assistance was -- and is -- needed.

12:34 Elizabeth Ferris: The United Nations issued an appeal last month for $460 million, of which about 74% is presently funded. That seems like a lot of money, but given the scale of the destruction, it is clear that more money will be needed in the future.

12:35 [Comment From Jason (WFP USA)): ] Do you feel like the international response has been slow and inadequate compared to the responses to Haiti and the Asian tsunami? Haven't more people been affected than both of those disasters combined?

12:36 Elizabeth Ferris: Yes, the international response was slow in comparison to the Haitian earthquake. Part of this is because the sheer scale of the disaster was slow to unfold. The first situation report by the UN was issued on 23 July -- but the flooding continued and expanded and it wasn't until 11 August that the appeal was launched.

12:37 Elizabeth Ferris: Another reason the response has been slower has been the fact that there have been relatively few casualties-- around 1,700 deaths, so far -- in comparison with Haiti, when there were over 200,000 deaths in the first few days. An earthquake simply happens much faster than flooding -- even though the number of people affected in the Pakistani floods is much higher than those affected by the Haitian earthquake.

12:37 [Comment From Sally: ] Has the international community stepped up its response?

12:38 Elizabeth Ferris: Yes, definitely. Governmental contributions in particular have stepped up in the last couple of weeks.

12:38 [Comment From Raj: ] Do you foresee possible widespread economic contraction as a long-term consequence of the flooding?

12:39 Elizabeth Ferris: Yes, there will serious long-term economic consequences. Some 200,000 livestock were killed, 14% of the country's cultivable area was flooded, seeds have been lost -- the agricultural sector has been hard hit.

12:40 Elizabeth Ferris: This has implications not only for those people dependent on the crops, but also on employment in both rural and urban areas, on export possibilities. And the damage to infrastructure -- roads, bridges, power facilities -- will impact the economy for years to come.

12:40 [Comment From Jeffrey Beck: ] What effect if any do the floods have on the efforts of the Taliban and other insurgent groups in the North West Frontier Province? If none, what efforts are being put forth by said groups to help the people in an effort to gain more support throughout the region?

12:41 Elizabeth Ferris: Initially, there was some hope that the insurgent groups would pause in their efforts, but that seems to have been short-lived. Taliban attacks continue -- and civilians are being killed.

12:42 Elizabeth Ferris: But there are further consequences as well -- security limitations are limiting the access of humanitarian workers to flood-affected areas. you might have read that the Taliban made threats against humanitarian workers and this is really frightening. Because when humanitarian workers have to pay extra money for security, or when it's more difficult for them to go to people in need, a lot of people suffer.

12:42 [Comment From Jeffrey Beck: ] Which group's efforts seem to be garnering more support in the aftermath of the effort; the Pakistani government, the Taliban, international aid groups or other? Also, what needs currently aren't being met by those groups helping the victims?

12:43 Elizabeth Ferris: The Pakistani military seems to be doing a good job -- given the situation -- of responding to the disaster and both national and international agencies have responded quickly and generously. But again, given the scale of the disaster, it simply isn't enough. And when desperate people aren't getting the assistance they need, they tend to lash out at those responsible.

12:44 Elizabeth Ferris: Lots of needs aren't being met -- for housing, basic food, non-food relief items, safe water -- the list goes on. The international humanitarian actors and the Pakistani government are doing the best they can, but it simply isn't enough to meet the needs.

12:45 Elizabeth Ferris: There are also reports of resentment over the way the aid is being distributed -- going to some provinces over others, to some socio-economic groups over others -- and these perceptions can be very dangerous to the government over the long-term. Wednesday

12:45 [Comment From Ray: ] Are there any viable comparisons that can be made between Haiti's earthquake and Pakistan's floods?

12:46 Elizabeth Ferris: In addition to differences in funding which I mentioned above, there are differences in the type of damages caused by earthquakes and floods. Earthquakes cause more devastating injuries, for example, than floods where the number of injured is relatively low. The risk of aftershocks after an earthquake also often hampers the response.

12:46 [Comment From Raj: ] It seems to me that one of the key long-term challenges facing Pakistan is the collapse of the quasi-democratic government. It appears that the military might try to take power in the 5th coup in Pakistan. What are your thoughts on this?

12:47 Elizabeth Ferris: It's hard to predict the political future in Pakistan! But the way the government responds to this massive flooding will definitely have political consequences. If people perceive that the response is not only slow, but is corrupt and unfair, they will tend to blame the government.

12:48 Elizabeth Ferris: So far, it seems like the Pakistani military is doing a good job in mobilizing the response effort. The danger is that if the military is perceived very positively and the civilian response is perceived negatively that this will impact on the future of the democratic government. But remember the government wasn't very popular to begin with.

12:48 Elizabeth Ferris: I think everyone has an interest in supporting the ability of the civilian government to mobilize an effective and fair response.

12:49 [Comment From Prince: ] Are the floodwaters still rising? How long until rebuilding and reconstruction can start?

12:50 Elizabeth Ferris: There is still some flooding in the south of the country, but in most areas the waters have receded or are receding. But remember, mud is a big issue. The flood waters may go down, but when people try to return to their homes, they find them filled with mud.

12:50 [Comment From Wes: ] What's going to be done about all the agricultural land lost?

12:51 Elizabeth Ferris: Certainly both the government and UN agencies -- like the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Food Program -- are planning ways of renewing the land that has been lost. Wheat, for example, needs to be planted in the next few months.

12:51 [Comment From Raj: ] Do you perceive the rise of Islamic fundamentalist organizations considering they have been quite proactive with providing aid?

12:52 Elizabeth Ferris: It's hard to tell. There are reports of insurgent groups providing relief assistance to local communities, but the scale of these efforts doesn't appear to be very great. And it's difficult to know whether the groups would be able to mobilize the amount of funds needed to sustain this relief over the longer-term.

12:53 Elizabeth Ferris: But what we see in many disasters is that when there's a vacuum in assistance, when neither the national authorities or international organizations are able to move quickly enough, other groups, whether insurgent or political, will try to fill the gap. Wednesday

12:53 [Comment From Henry: ] What does the outlook for recovery look like?

12:54 Elizabeth Ferris: it will be a long-term process. In the best of circumstances, the government will work quickly to incorporate reconstruction into its long-term development objectives, the international community will provide the necessary financial support and things will go smoothly.

12:55 Elizabeth Ferris: In the worst-case scenario, planning will be inadequate, reconstruction efforts will be uncoordinated, and the process will be riddled with corruption, giving rise to greater popular dissatisfaction with the government and the process. It's a risky time for Pakistan -- or any government facing a large-scale disaster.

12:55 [Comment From Sam Sturgis: ] What in your opinion have been the greatest flaws in the relief effort?

12:56 Elizabeth Ferris: As always; lack of coordination, slow arrival of needed funds, and problems of access to people in need. It took a long time for relief to reach many people.

12:57 Elizabeth Ferris: But the scale of this disaster is almost unprecedented. More people affected than in the tsunami in 2004, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti combined. As the new UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, said a day or so ago -- it's similar to responding to 4 disasters at the same time.

12:57 [Comment From Troy: ] Can you please discuss any relationship between people displaced by conflict and those displaced by a natural disaster, such as Pakistan's floods?

12:58 Elizabeth Ferris: Good question, Troy. You know by the end of July 2010, there were some 2 million people displaced by violence in the north of the country, particularly in FAA and Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa -- most of whom are living with host families.

12:59 Elizabeth Ferris: The flooding caused some of these conflict-induced IDPs (internally displaced people) to be displaced again and raised questions about how they will find solutions to their displacement.

12:59 [Comment From Andrew ] Where are all the Pakistanis who lost their homes living at the moment?

1:00 Elizabeth Ferris: About 600,000 tents and tarps have been distributed -- but remember that 1.8 million homes were lost. Most people are living in camps of one kind or another, government-organized or sometimes spontaneous settlements.

1:01 Elizabeth Ferris: Some of these camps have abysmal conditions and while most people have escaped with their families, there are cases where the men have stayed behind to try to protect their property, and women and children are living on their own in the camps.

1:02 Elizabeth Ferris: And many of the displaced are living in schools -- some 1.5 million of them. This means that the schools can't open to provide education to school kids. This is understandable in the short term, but as time drags on, it can be a source of resentment in communities who want their schools open to their children.

1:02 [Comment From brian: ] Will relief efforts by the U.S. government and American non-profits help public opinion of our country in that region?

1:03 Elizabeth Ferris: The U.S. has mobilized a substantial relief operation -- about $260 million so far. Whether that will have a lasting impact on Pakistani perceptions of the U.S. remains to be seen.

1:04 Elizabeth Ferris: After the 2005 Pakistani earthquake, for example, the US responded quickly and generously and there was a rise in popular positive opinions of the US. But it turned out to be relatively short-lived -- a couple of years later, it didn't seem to have lasted.

1:05 Elizabeth Ferris: But the important thing is for the U.S. to respond because there is tremendous human need -- not to try to curry favor with a public it perceives as politically important. And so far, I think the U.S. government is trying to get that message across -- we're helping you because of the scale of the tragedy.

1:05 [Comment From Jason (WFP USA): ] I saw a link today to all of the international covers of Time magazine. Every cover is on the Pakistan disaster except for the U.S. edition. Thoughts?

1:06 Elizabeth Ferris: I hadn't seen that, Jason, but it's a sad commentary on what the media thinks will sell in the US. The Pakistan disaster is huge and deserves a lot of media attention in the U.S. and around the world. In comparison with Haiti for example, Pakistan received much less media coverage.

1:08 Elizabeth Ferris: And media coverage is linked to financial support -- particularly from the general public which has been slow in the case of Pakistan. While governments have generally responded generously, the public has been much slower to send in $10 or $100 individual contributions. More media coverage of the suffering caused by the disaster would certainly have increased these contributions.

1:08 [Comment From Jack: ] What should people who want to help do?

1:09 Elizabeth Ferris: There are many wonderful relief organizations responding to the floods, from UN agencies to the Red Cross/Crescent movement, to individual non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service, Save the Children. Actually Interaction -- www.interaction.org -- has a comprehensive listing of US-based NGOs working in Pakistan.

1:09 [Comment From Sam Sturgis: ] Do you feel it [the slow response] has to do with the apparent anti-islamic sentiment in America currently?

1:11 Elizabeth Ferris: I think that's part of it as is a more general perception that the government is somehow embroiled with the war in Afghanistan. And also there's a feeling that perhaps Islamic countries and organizations should do more. But also the fact that Pakistan is much further from the US than, say, Haiti.

1:11 [Comment From James: ] What countries or organizations have been the biggest relief contributors?

1:11 Elizabeth Ferris: Certainly the U.S., European Union, Saudi Arabia -- those are the major donors so far.

1:11 [Comment From James: ] In general, do you think that relief contributions following a crisis of this size are often driven by selfish concerns - for example, countries trying to win the favor of others by donating supplies and cash?

1:12 Elizabeth Ferris: No, I think that relief is contributed to respond to humanitarian need, but often the way that relief is channeled has domestic benefits. Thus the U.S. has always been a big contributor of food in part for domestic political reasons. Similarly most of the Islamic countries' contributions have been of goods rather than cash.

1:12 [Comment From Kim: ] What do you think of Angelina Jolie's recent visit to the affected region? Is it a good thing for celebrities to do this?

1:14 Elizabeth Ferris: Angelina Jolie has been a long-time, committed advocate for refugees -- and has donated lots of her own funds to Pakistan and a dozen other crises. I think she does a tremendous service by raising awareness of the scale of the disaster. Other celebrities as well have done more than use disasters as an opportunity for a photo op -- working in places such as Haiti. For example Sean Penn is running the largest IDP camp in the country.

1:14 [Comment From Mujeeb (HonorLiving): ] Besides the direct aid to those affected is there a strategy to mobilize the local businesses, for example through bank loans or microfinance to be able to provide assistance in rebuilding efforts?

1:16 Elizabeth Ferris: Yes, there are a lot of people working on this. The World Bank, for example has set aside some $900 million for long-term economic recovery. These reconstruction efforts need to take seriously the needs of small businesses who are the backbone of the Pakistani economy. I hope that there will be a big investment in microfinance initiatives.

1:16 [Comment From Jason (WFP USA): ] What about donor fatigue? Do you think that after Haiti, the Asian tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake a few years back, etc. that people are starting to feel powerless to help?

1:17 Elizabeth Ferris: Well, donor fatigue comes in many varieties. At one level, governments and the UN have a hard time responding to more than 1 major disaster in a year -- they simply haven't budgeted for it. For the general public, there may be a sense that they've already contributed to one disaster this year and can't really handle another. But I don't think that holds across the board. People respond generously when they perceive that there is a need and that their contributions will help.

1:17 [Comment From Juman: ] I think most people prefer to donate money directly instead of giving government who is plagued by corruption. Thoughts?

1:18 Elizabeth Ferris: Yes, I agree. There is a lot of fear of corruption in Pakistan (and in Haiti too for that matter) and much of the funds are being channeled through international organizations and NGOs to avoid that possibility.

1:18 Elizabeth Ferris: At the same time, when funds are sent through NGOs rather than the government, they tend to build up the power of the NGOs when often it is the capacity of the government which needs enhancing.

1:19 [Comment From Nate: ] What's your opinion on reporters working in the region? Should they be helping? Or should they simply stick to their job - reporting what's going on. Reporters seemed to take a lot of flak while reporting on the situation in Haiti, and I read an article by a BBC reporter facing an interesting dilemma.

1:20 Elizabeth Ferris: Reporters have a vital role to play in reporting what is going on -- that has to be their first responsibility. But sometimes they're in situations where there are lives at stake and they respond to that need in a way that goes beyond their obligations as reporters.

1:20 Elizabeth Ferris: In some cases this may be an 'angle' or a way of getting more positive coverage, but don't discount the sheer human emotion of wanting to help someone in trouble. Reporters are human beings after all.

1:21 [Comment From Henry: ] What are the biggest barriers to relief organizations and relief efforts?

1:22 Elizabeth Ferris: Available funding, access to the affected areas, ability to get their experts to the region (many are still tied up in Haiti, for example), security of their staff -- but most of all the sheer scale of the disaster and difficulties of determining where to put their resources.

1:22 [Comment From Sam Sturgis: ] What drove you to this kind of work?

1:24 Elizabeth Ferris: I worked with refugees for many years -- people fleeing conflicts. Only in the last 3 or 4 years have I done much work with natural disasters. I expected to find the issues very different, but in fact they are quite similar. People are traumatized, displaced and harmed by forces beyond their control. To be able to work with them, to make humanitarian response more effective is a real privilege.

1:24 [Comment From David K: ] This is a little beyond the current disaster, but currently India is allowed to take a fixed (as opposed to a percent) volume of water out of Pakistan's 2 rivers coming out of Kashmir. As these rivers get smaller, the amount of water coming into Pakistan is going to drop quick. Is there a way out of this? There has never been a water crisis between two nuclear and powers before and it seems like the kind of issue that could heat up the India/Pakistan cold war very quickly

1:25 Elizabeth Ferris: The whole question of water availability and usage and dams is a hot political issue -- between India and Pakistan but also within Pakistan where there are accusations back and forth of one province diverting floodwaters from its own territory into that of another.

1:26 Elizabeth Ferris: Climate change is leading to more and more severe natural disasters. And it will be more important than ever to deal with these issues of conflicts over natural resources, particularly water, in order to prevent further displacement.

1:27 Elizabeth Ferris: We have an opportunity now to take disaster risk reduction seriously -- to implement measures which will mitigate the worst effects of natural hazards. We can't control mother nature, but we can certainly do more to ensure that fewer people suffer when these kinds of disasters occur.

1:27 David Mark: Thanks for joining us today.

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