Imagine the entire population of our largest metropolitan area, New York City, were made homeless over night and a third of them were starving. Now double that.
For most in the United States, the country of Pakistan holds a checkered reputation.
First, there's the evidence of past duplicitous relations with our nation's military and collusion with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. Then there's the less-than-predictable politico-military power balance in a nation with a stockpile of roughly 150 nuclear warheads. Add to that volatile relations stemming from three separate wars with India which have seemed to distract the nation's foreign policy establishment to the near-total exclusion of threats in the north and it's generally true that those in the States who know much of anything about Pakistani current affairs tend to not like what they've heard.
It's possible that it's for this reason that so few of us have been moved to help a nation that's been devastated in the last three weeks by widespread floods; in truth, I'm guessing few have even heard of the crisis.
But, a crisis it most surely is, already having afflicted disaster on more human beings than the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and that which struck Haiti earlier this year. The flooding of the Indus River, which stretches across the entire length of Pakistan, has killed more than 2,000, left over 700,000 families homeless, and affected more than 20 million people, reducing entire towns to muddy rubble. Some 17 million acres of agricultural land have been submerged, and more than 100,000 animals have perished. Six million people are in need of food aid.
In some areas, the waters have begun to recede, leaving unusable farm land and pools of stagnant water which threaten to cause widespread outbreaks of disease. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warns of a "second wave of death" unless aid comes quickly, with the World Health Organization declaring six million people, including 3.5 million children, at risk from diseases like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A and E, and dysentery.
In other areas, most notably the southern Sindh province, rain fall continues to exacerbate the Indus, threatening even further breaches of the river banks.
The United Nations estimates $460 million is needed to deal with immediate humanitarian needs and the Pakistani government estimates the total reconstruction cost at nearly $15 billion. So far the world has pledged or donated just $125 million.
It should be pointed out that the U.S. Department of State has mobilized more emergency aid than any other country, including tons of food aid and the dispatching of Navy helicopters to assist with search and rescue missions. It's also true that the Pakistani army has reacted swiftly and competently. But neither of those truths has multiplied the aid actually available to make a difference.
Some worry the money could fall into the hands of the Taliban, but while international aid agencies and non-governmental organizations have taken steps to prevent such a possibility, that reticence to help the militants has unintentionally opened a dangerous door. While the U.N., Red Cross, Care, and others have pleaded for more aid, the Taliban hasn't focused on siphoning it off, but rather on actually assisting the victims themselves. Especially in strategic areas like the Swat valley, this has left many rural Pakistanis with the impression that the international community and their own government have abandoned them while the Taliban come to their aid.
Make no mistake, the victims of this disaster are farmers and shopkeepers and schoolteachers, men and woman and children.
They say that Americans, blessed with so much, are some of the most giving people on the planet and that economic hard times actually lead to an increase in charitable giving as we come closer to what really matters and reconnect with the empathy that defines our humanity.
On Monday, several hundred people blocked the main highway linking Punjab province with the city of Karachi in protest. "We have no food and no shelter," they cried. "We need immediate help."
As a human being, I implore you to help in any way you can. Please, give generously.
To help, text 'SWAT' to 50555 on your mobile phone to donate $10 directly to the UNHCR or give to one of these organizations working to mobilize relief workers and supplies and combat disease on the ground:
American Red Cross
Doctors Without Borders