Organized by the SIPA South Asia Student Association, and co-sponsored by the Organization of Pakistani Students and the South Asia Institute, the panel, titled ‘The Flood in Pakistan: Prospects for a sustainable recovery and rehabilitation in Pakistan,’ put forward possible paths of action and public involvement required to keep mitigating the flood impacts.
“Perceived corruption by the government should not be an excuse for people not to donate,” said Professor Hassan Abbas to over a hundred attendees at the panel. The panelists sought not only to highlight the unfolding humanitarian crisis but also to help broaden the conversation about Pakistan away from security issues, which have dominated discussion of the country with the rise of a militant insurgency in the country’s north-west and the ongoing NATO war in Afghanistan.
In addition to Abbas, the panel consisted of Columbia professors Dr. Richard Garfield and Dr. S Akbar Zaidi, Dr. Asif Zaidi of the United Nations Environment Program, and SIPA alumna Batool Hassan from the Acumen Fund.
Though each speaker showed skepticism of the Pakistani government’s response to the floods, there was significantly more enthusiasm about the role that Pakistani civil society organizations are playing in flood relief. The speakers also urged Columbia University to be, as an institution, more engaged with Pakistani affairs – an effort they say would buttress the University’s mission to be a global university. Two SIPA students involved in Haiti earthquake relief efforts, Megan Rapp and James Taylor, also provided an update on the latest situation in the country, saying they hoped that in eight months and 10 days (the time since the January 12 earthquake) from September 22, the Pakistani flood victims would also not have been forgotten.
The panel was part of the larger United for Pakistan Flood Relief Coalition initiative, an umbrella group of campus and city-wide organizations hoping to fundraise $100,000 by the end of the year, of which $11,000 has so far been collected. The coalition was formed at the start of September as a response to the flooding and as a way to get efforts at Columbia co-ordinated. It has so far collaborated with many student groups, faculty, and the University administration, including the SIPA Office of Student Affairs and SIPASA, which plans to host a few events centred on flood relief over the coming months.
At the end of July and through early August, heavy rainfall occurred throughout Pakistan, especially in the north-west. Data from the Government of Pakistan Metrological Department shows that just on July 29 in the city of Peshawar, it rained six times the amount that it usually rains in the whole month. As the water then moved downstream through the rivers that flow from the northern tip of the country to their delta in the south, they caused massive flooding. Their effects have been devastating and have caused UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to label it as “the worst disaster the United Nations has responded to in its 65-year history.”
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the flooding has killed 1867 people and affected over 20 million people in all four Pakistani provinces. Dr. Garfield, who completed a humanitarian needs assessment for the United Nations in Pakistan in August, said that one-third of these 20 million are still displaced from their homes, and the immediate need now is to stop the spread of disease as the displaced are living in thousands of camps throughout the country, and need adequate sanitation, shelter, and food.
The floods have also raised questions about Pakistan’s long-term development and political stability. Dr. Asif Zaidi said that nearly two percent of the country’s forests have been destroyed and millions of crops and livestock along with a large amount of the physical infrastructure of roads, bridges, and highways have been washed away. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani has claimed flood-related damages to be $43 billion. Major concerns centre on food security and rebuilding and restarting markets in flooded areas.
While the civilian government, in power since 2008, has been largely criticised by the media and people as slow and indifferent to people’s needs, coverage of the Pakistani military’s response has been much more positive, as images of Pakistani soldiers rescuing stranded victims have been contrasted with tapes of Pakistani politicians going on foreign tours at with taxpayers’ money. Defenders of the government have pointed out that no government in the world could have been adequately prepared for such an unprecedented disaster, and that the military is the only institution with the physical and human resources to reach many of the hardest-hit and remote areas.
By the end of the evening, exactly $1000 had been raised to be given to the United Nations Emergency Response Fund for Pakistan. “We might not leave tonight feeling good, but no one should leave feeling that nothing is being done”, organizer and SIPA student Rehan Jamil told the audience as participants left, many inspired to think about what they could do to get involved.
Muneeb Ansari is a second year Master of International Affairs student and World Affairs Editor at Communiqué.