Flood of humanity

Our subcontinent has just experienced one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. The massive and unprecedented floods in Pakistan have already killed at least 2,000 people and affected around 20 million people. The devastation and misery obviously cannot be simply quantified, but the sheer numbers of those affected by the destruction is more than the total of all those affected by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 and earthquake in Haiti in 2010. They also constitute as much as one-tenth of the entire population of Pakistan.
The unprecedented monsoon rains in July and August caused rivers to rise and areas to be submerged. Houses collapsed (more than one million have been completely destroyed), roads became unpassable, rail tracks were damaged, bridges were broken. The flooding started in the Northern Province and moved to the Swat Valley, causing it to be completely cut off for some time. The Indus river burst its banks in Sindh in early August, submerging towns and villages and creating havoc. As the flooding moved to western Punjab, it destroyed standing crops, killed livestock and swept away large amounts of stored grain. By late August new flood surges sweeping down the mountainous tracts gave rise to the fear of landslides. Now, in addition to these calamities, the threat of epidemics of water-borne diseases looms large.
The logistical challenges of dealing with this huge emergency are enormous. These have naturally been made worse by the fragility of the official administration in several of the most ravaged parts of the country and the ongoing conflict with a resurgent Taliban and other fundamentalist groups. Indeed, fears have been expressed by several observers that in addition to the human consequences of the disaster, there can be significant security implications as well.
The displacement and destitution caused by these floods may well generate ethnic and social tensions, and if relief is not forthcoming quickly and adequately, these will aggravate local resentment against the government and support for violent opposition. Indeed, even a calamity of this scale was not sufficient to stem the rampant violence in the country, which has made the official provision of relief even more difficult.
The sheer scale of this tragedy has meant that the government of Pakistan has not been shy of accepting international assistance. The complicated past and present of Indo-Pak relations did create an initial resistance to offers of aid from India, but it was agreed that such aid could be routed through the United Nations. The Government of India initially offered only $5 million, but this has now been increased to $25 million. Of this, $20 million is to be contributed to the "Pakistan Initial Floods Emergency Response Plan" launched by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and $5 million will be given to the World Food Programme for its relief efforts in Pakistan.
This may appear to be a formal official gesture at the Central government level. But in fact there is a genuine and deeply felt public concern within India at the plight of flood-affected Pakistani citizens, and a sense of wanting to express solidarity and provide assistance in whatever ways possible.
What else can explain the move of the state government of Kerala to offer $1 million to the relief efforts in Pakistan out of its own tiny budget? This is a very large sacrifice for a state with a relatively small state domestic product, an even smaller government budget, and which is struggling to cope with the reduced fiscal transfers coming from the Centre. The very fact that this offer was made so quickly and unreservedly indicates the degree of fellow feeling and solidarity in the subcontinent.
There is other evidence of solidarity in the region, coming from other countries. The government of Bangladesh has pledged $2 million in aid, and also sent medical teams and material assistance to help in the relief work. From Sri Lanka, there have been donations of medicine and relief items for the flood victims. The tiny country of Maldives managed to collect around $1 million to send as relief. Even the cash-strapped government of Nepal has provided some money for emergency assistance to Pakistan. What is particularly encouraging about such offers is that they are not constrained by narrow political interests and strategic concerns.
Of course the nature of the aid spending and the humanitarian assistance provided will be crucial in determining the extent to which those affected by this disaster are actually helped to emerge from it. And these rightly should be the focus of attention and active involvement of the citizenry to ensure that the money is spent in the best interests of the flood victims and to help them build a viable future.
But there are moments in history when the most compelling urge to action must come from the basic sense of common humanity and of solidarity in suffering. Such an urge must obviously be all the greater within the subcontinent, with its all too pervasive commonalities of experience, so that emergency relief can be given with grace and accepted with dignity.
So the assistance offered by various governments and concerned citizens’ groups all deserve to have a wider ripple effect and encourage greater generosity from other groups and governments.

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