Pakistan: the Untold Disaster

Traveling through Pakistan with his television crew, Jonathan Miller uncovers the truth about a slow-moving disaster—and argues why we should care.

I was sitting in the front seat of our four-wheel drive when, last week, two women wearing burqas approached the main highway in flood-trashed Nowshera, in northwestern Pakistan. A miserable collection of plastic sheeting had been strung up along the central reservation; on the other side lay wrecked remains of villages, wiped off the map by 40 feet of floodwater.

Suddenly the two women—to my horror—lunged into the path of our vehicle, arms outstretched, begging for help. Our driver swore, braked and swerved. And I watched them in the rearview-mirror, as they composed themselves and prepared for an assault on the next vehicle.

We drove on in silence, stunned by this act of desperation.

From the storm-lashed remote northern valleys of Swat to the overflowing Indus River in the south as well as in between—in the malarial swamps where villages once stood—I witnessed anguish on an unprecedented scale, wondering all the while why we —in the Western world—have failed to respond as we should.

For 10 days, I traveled with my television crew through Pakistan's flood zones, encountering countless such heart-wrenching scenes of distress among the dispossessed. The floodwaters had robbed these people of everything they owned, stripping away even their dignity, in a two-week, slow-motion disaster.

Tunku Varadarajan: A New Threat from PakistanFrom the storm-lashed remote northern valleys of Swat to the overflowing Indus River in the south, as well as in between—in the malarial swamps where villages once stood—I witnessed anguish on an unprecedented scale, wondering all the while why we—in the Western world—have failed to respond as we should.

Some suggest it's donor-fatigue in a time of recession. Others speculate that the disaster has clashed with the summer holidays in Europe and the U.S.

But the role of the media undoubtedly plays a role. Television in particular is crucial when it comes to capturing the public imagination. While in Britain the floods have gotten a fair amount of attention, in the U.S. there has been little coverage—either in print or on TV. And low-key coverage results in a low-key response simply because people don't know what's going on. Relief agencies need to be able to "sell" a disaster to donors; TV reports are their shop window.

Perhaps the big problem in garnering public support has also been the relatively low number killed. The media seize on death tolls; the bigger the number, the greater the scale of the tragedy, it seems. In Pakistan, brutally put, there just "aren't enough dead."

But in truth, it's the number of survivors that pose the problem: all 20 million of them. "They're the ones we're concerned about," Ian Bray, from Oxfam, told me. "The dead we can do nothing about."

Tens of thousands remain unreached, even as ever-greater numbers of people are forced to abandon their homes. Survivors, whose mud-brick houses have been turned to sludge, have had their lives upended and, gathered in filthy makeshift encampments, are now stalked by the specter of hunger and disease. The "C" word, cholera, is among the greatest fears now.

Mohammed Qazilbash, spokesman for Save the Children in Pakistan, put his finger on it when he told us: "The Asian tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan were like heart attacks. This is like a cancer—it just keeps spreading."

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I covered both the tsunami and the earthquake—terrible events, yes, but finite and contained. Ultimately, relief workers had to deal with the aftermath of one big traumatic event. This, on the other hand, is completely different. To me, the paradoxical problem is this: It's precisely because this catastrophe moved so slowly that it caught everyone—including journalists—so off-guard.

At first we were told 1 or 2 million people were affected in Pakistan. That's a lot, for sure, but not uncommon. There are bad monsoon floods in South Asia every five years or so. Then, the number went up to 6 million people. And then it just kept climbing. I remember looking at my producer in disbelief when she read off her BlackBerry that the Pakistan government estimated that 14 million people had been affected. Yet, that was days ago. Now, the number is closer to 20 million.

And the humanitarian crisis is now matched in intensity by the long-term economic crisis the floods have unleashed. The World Bank says agricultural losses will top $1 billion. Farming constitutes one fifth of Pakistan's economic output, and 120 million people rely on agriculture—both for food and jobs.

In Pakistan, this big, catastrophic event just keeps spreading like that cancer. Recently, the United Nations warned of a second wave of deaths from disease as fresh floodwaters again threaten to drown regions that until now have otherwise been spared.

Relief agencies have been hampered in their delivery of aid by the unbelievable scale of the disaster. For the first few days we were there, I was taken aback by the fact that we kept on stumbling across large groups of desperate, unreached people, until I realized that this was simply an indicator of how huge the problem was. The Pakistan government, the army, international refief agencies—even the U.S. Army with its fleet of Chinooks—were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in need.

The one group of relief workers we saw everywhere, however, were the ones with ties to extremist groups; Islamist charity foundations such as Falah-e-Insaniat, which shares the same leader as the militant jihadi group Lashkar-e-Taiba, widely accused of launching the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. I filmed at two separate Falah feeding centers, which also ran medical posts and whose staff were busily handing out cash to flood victims, in the absence of government assistance.

The unfolding political story of Pakistan (including its role in the war against terror) and the unfolding humanitarian disaster are inextricably linked. Western generosity at this time of crisis could still help prevent these Islamist groups from gaining any more foothold under the cover of aid to the victims.

The more the West gives, the less likely it is that flood victims will be driven by sheer desperation into the arms of Islamist insurgents.

The scale of this catastrophe is unprecedented. But this is not just about humanitarian aid. Looking after the the people of Pakistan now is in everyone's strategic interest.

Correction: This article initially misstated the number of Pakistanis who rely on agriculture.

Jonathan Miller is the foreign affairs correspondent for Channel 4 News in London. He spent 10 days reporting on the floods in Pakistan, traveling more than 1,000 miles from the far north to the south of the country.