Standing under leaden skies in Pakistan last Sunday, I saw a sea of suffering. Flood waters have washed away thousands of towns and villages. Roads, bridges and homes in every province of the country have been destroyed.
From the sky, I saw thousands of acres of prime farmland — the bread and butter of the Pakistani economy — swallowed up by the rising tides. On the ground, I met terrified people, living in daily fear that they could not feed their children or protect them from the next wave of crisis: the spread of diarrhea, hepatitis, malaria and, most deadly, cholera.
The sheer scale of the disaster almost defies comprehension. Around the country, an estimated 15 to 20 million people have been affected. That’s more than the entire population hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami and Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the 2007 Cyclone Nargis and this year’s earthquake in Haiti — combined. An area as big as Italy and larger than more than half the countries in the world — some 160,000 square kilometers, or 62,000 square miles — is under water.
Why has the world been slow to grasp the dimensions of this calamity? Perhaps because this is no made-for-TV disaster, with sudden impact and dramatic rescues. An earthquake may claim tens of thousands of lives in an instant; in a tsunami, whole cities and their populations vanish in a flash.
By contrast, this is a slow motion catastrophe — one that builds over time. And it is far from over.
The monsoon rains could continue for weeks. Even as waters recede from some areas, new floods are affecting others, particularly in the south. And, of course, we know this is happening in one of the most challenged regions of the world — a place where stability and prosperity is profoundly in the world’s interest. For all of these reasons, the floods of August are far more than a disaster for Pakistan alone. Indeed, they represent one of the greatest tests of global solidarity in our time.
That is why the United Nations has issued an emergency appeal for $460 million. That amounts to less than $1 a day per person to keep 6 million people alive for the next three months — including 3.5 million children. International aid commitments are growing by the day. Less than a week after the appeal was launched, we are halfway there. And yet, the scale of the response is insufficient for the scale of this disaster.
On Thursday, the United Nations General Assembly will meet to intensify our collective efforts. If we act now, a second wave of deaths caused by waterborne diseases can still be prevented. It is not easy to mount relief operations in such difficult and sometimes perilous places. But I have seen it happen around the world, from the most remote and dangerous parts of Africa to Haiti’s shattered cities. And I saw it in Pakistan this week.
A host of UN agencies, international aid groups such as the Red Cross/Red Crescent and other nongovernmental organizations have been supporting the government of Pakistan’s response to the emergency. Using trucks, helicopters and even mules to transport food around the country and reach those cut off from help, we have provided one-month food rations to nearly one million people. Roughly that many now have emergency shelter, and more are receiving clean water every day. Cholera kits, anti-snake venom doses, surgical supply kits and oral dehydration salts are saving growing numbers of lives.
This is a start, but it needs a massive boost. Six million people are short of food; 14 million need emergency health care, with a special focus on children and pregnant women. And as the waters recede, we must move quickly to help people build back their country and pick up the pieces of their lives.
The World Bank has estimated crop damage to be at least $1 billion. Farmers will need seeds, fertilizers and tools to replant, lest next year’s harvest be lost along with this one. Already, we are seeing price spikes for food in Pakistan’s major cities. In the longer term, the huge damage to infrastructure must be repaired, from schools and hospitals to irrigation canals, communications and transport links. The United Nations will be part of all this, too.
In the media, we hear some talk of “fatigue” — suggestions that governments are reluctant to cope with yet another disaster, that they hesitate to contribute more to this part of the world. In fact, the evidence is otherwise. Donors are giving to Pakistan, and that is encouraging. If anyone should be fatigued, it is the ordinary people I met in Pakistan —women, children and small farmers, tired of troubles, conflict and economic hard times and who have now lost everything.
Yet instead of fatigue, I saw determination, resilience and hope — hope and the expectation that they are not alone in their darkest hour of need.
We simply cannot stand by and let this natural disaster turn into a man-made catastrophe. Let us stand with the people of Pakistan every step of the long and difficult road ahead.
Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations.