An Estimated 20 Million Pakistanis in Desperate Need: Why So Little Media Attention?

Rebecca Winthrop and Justin W. van Fleet

As of today, the number of Pakistanis affected by the floods is estimated at 20 million – a massive figure that has continued to increase with the United Nations putting the number at 15.4 million only a few days ago. This disaster is unprecedented for Pakistan. The tragic 2005 earthquake in Pakistan killed 86,000 people and affected 4 million. Even more depressing is the fact that the number of people affected by the Pakistani floods is already far greater when compared to other recent major natural disasters; it is more than three times that of Haiti’s earthquake or more than 10 times that of Hurricane Katrina.[1]

International assistance for Pakistan’s flood victims is trickling in from governments. Only 40 percent of the estimated funds needed to adequately respond has been provided and there is nowhere near the level of private outpouring of support as has been seen with other recent crises, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. For a tragedy of such epic proportions, there has been comparatively little media attention, particularly in the English language press.

Floods causing major short- and long-term needs

Pakistanis desperately need our assistance. For almost three weeks, the heavy rains have caused flooding, washing away people’s houses, livestock, livelihoods and family members. While the current death toll is low compared to other major disasters, there is serious risk of a second wave of deaths from polluted water, the spread of illness and lack of food. Current estimates place 1,400 people killed and 2,000 people injured by the flooding – well below the final numbers of almost 230,000 people who perished in the Haiti earthquake and almost 280,000 from the Indian Ocean tsunami. But while the death toll remains relatively low, for now, the number of people who have had to flee their homes, had their lives washed away, and are struggling to survive is substantially larger in the Pakistan floods than other disasters.       

Perhaps most concerning is the long-term impacts of the floods. USAID is already considering the long-term disaster recovery and reconstruction needs by highlighting the importance of investing in agriculture and economic development along with rebuilding social services such as education and health. The World Bank has committed $900 million for long-term recovery. But much more is needed. The floods have wiped out crops in Pakistan’s fertile agricultural regions – spreading across 62,000 square miles at last count, an area larger than the entire U.S. state of Georgia. For the many Pakistanis who survive on subsistence farming, even if they replanted their fields today (a highly unlikely prospect), they would be without food for at least three to six months until harvest time. 

Close to 900,000 houses have been destroyed by flooding and this means the destruction of life savings. Many Pakistanis, especially the rural and the poor, do not keep their wealth in banks nor do they have access to online records. So if their house goes, so do the assets needed to recover their home. Land rights will most certainly be a major issue facing disaster-affected Pakistanis in the future. Specifically, land ownership is complicated in Pakistan, with possession often being as the old saying goes “nine-tenths of the law”; many fear that if they leave their land, they will not be able to claim it back when they return. Currently, there are reports of some husbands and fathers staying behind to protect their property while the rest of the family evacuates. Education has also stopped for many children and youth affected by the flooding with schools regularly used as temporary shelters for the displaced.

Assistance hampered by limited media attention and private charitable giving

The relatively limited media coverage of the Pakistani floods is puzzling. Our analysis of major global English-language print and broadcast media shows that Pakistan’s floods have been covered far less than other major disasters. Ten days after the flooding began there were approximately 320 broadcast news stories and 730 print news stories covering the Pakistan flood disaster with the number of stories in print media rising to almost 1,800 by day 20. In virtually every other major disaster, including the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the recent Pakistan and Haiti earthquakes, coverage was well over 3,000 stories in both print and broadcast media respectively by day 10 and by day 20.   

The slow-onset nature of the disaster may be one reason for the limited attention. Earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes are one-time calamitous events, making it easy to capture the public’s attention, especially if real life mimics Hollywood movie scenarios. At the beginning of the Pakistan floods, rivers rapidly overflowed destroying everything in their wake. However, water levels are currently rising more slowly. Water is steadily enveloping more and more of Pakistan’s countryside every day. This type of disaster – the creeping tragedy – is something that climate scientists warn us to expect more of as climate change begins to affect large-scale patterns of atmospheric circulation.[2] We therefore need to be more attuned to the signs of this type of tragedy. 

The negligible media attention in the English-language press is certainly a factor in the limited support for flood victims from private individuals, foundations and corporations, especially in the U.S. Americans are traditionally very generous in reaching into their pockets to respond to disasters and have time and again supported U.S. charities as illustrated by the $644 million raised within the first 19 days after the Haiti earthquake and the $587 million raised within three weeks of Hurricane Katrina. As of August 17, private donations had only reached $1 million, prompting George Soros to direct his foundations to help fill this gap with $5 million in relief assistance.      

There are several reputable agencies and organizations currently on the ground assisting Pakistan’s flood victims, including the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, the United Nations World Food Programme, the International Rescue Committee, and Save the Children. However, these organizations need more support in order to effectively help respond to the disaster.

The flooding in Pakistan will likely get worse before it gets better. And recovery from the flooding will take a long time. Increased financial support from governments, relief agencies and the citizens of the world are urgently needed now.

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[1] The recent earthquake in Haiti affected 3 million people, the Indian Ocean tsunami affected 1.7 million people, and Hurricane Katrina affected 1.5 million.

[2] How the heatwave in Russia and connected to the floods in Pakistan, Economist, August 12th.