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In Pakistan, Aid Groups Struggle to Help Flood Victims

August 16, 2010 at 9:09 PM EDT
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Disease is beginning to spread around refugee camps in flooded Pakistan as rain continues to pour. Jeffrey Brown talks to Michael Young of the International Rescue Committee on the risk of waterborne illness and what measures are being taken to help flood victims.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on the aid effort to the affected region, we turn to Michael Young, regional director for Asia, the Caucasus, and the Middle East at the International Rescue Committee. He served as that group’s country director for Pakistan until just recently.

Mr. Young, the first problem must be the sheer scale. Tell us what you’re hearing from your people on the ground about that challenge.

MICHAEL YOUNG, International Rescue Committee: Well, I think your opening segment painted a pretty accurate picture.

I mean, I think there are three principal challenges the area faces, scale, as you saw, with 20 million people affected, a flooded area that stretches from the mountains in the northwest right down to the plains in Punjab and Sindh, up to eight million acres of standing crops destroyed, probably up to a million houses destroyed by now.

It really is staggering in terms of meeting that level of need, immediate need. Then there is complexity. It’s a very complex emergency. So many of the areas that have been hit by the flood are also areas that for several years now have been coping with Taliban militancy and the Pakistani army’s campaigns against the Taliban.

And there were still 1.3 million people displaced who fled from their homes due to those campaigns in the northwest of the country that have also been badly hit by the flood.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, so…

MICHAEL YOUNG: And, thirdly, I think…

JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me. Go ahead.

MICHAEL YOUNG: … logistics. The first logistical problem is a simple one. There is not enough money getting through that can be translated into aid on the ground.

The U.N.’s emergency response appeal, which is the whole humanitarian community’s principal mechanism of saying, these are the needs, the immediate needs that need to be met to save lives during the flood and its immediate aftermath, is only 20 percent funded. So, that’s the first challenge. The international response to the crisis has not yet stepped up to the scale that it needs to be in order to be able to reach people such as those illustrated in your report.

JEFFREY BROWN: So…

JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me. Let me ask you about a specific problem, because the U.N. today warned about the risk of disease.

MICHAEL YOUNG: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you about that. How serious a problem and who is most at risk?

MICHAEL YOUNG: It’s a very serious problem. We’re already seeing a sharp spike in the cases of diarrhea, other gastrointestinal diseases. We have traced the first cases of cholera in places like the Upper Swat Valley. Indeed, the — the kind of aftermath of the flood, the effect of not so much the flood itself, but the effect of impure water, poor hygiene conditions, cramped and unhygienic shelter, all of these can translate into far more deaths than the flood itself directly caused.

And we’re — we’re currently grappling that in coordination with many other agencies, with U.N. agencies, nonprofit agencies, local and international, to try and get a grip on the health crisis.

The International Rescue Committee itself is focusing a lot of its effort on providing clean water, hygiene kits and sanitation to the flood-affected areas, so at least people have that basic service in place, and we can try and control outbreaks of disease.

JEFFREY BROWN: And tell us. You started to talk about the logistics. Fill that in a little bit. How coordinated is this so far? How much is the government or the military, as we saw in that report, able to coordinate the various types of relief that are necessary?

MICHAEL YOUNG: Well, the principal coordination mechanisms are in place. I mean, the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, it runs a series of forums in which all of the key players come together, whether they’re government or non-governmental, to look at needs and to plan responses as quickly as possible.

And there are meetings in the key places — key cities, like Islamabad or Peshawar, every second day. And where information comes in, you analyze that information and you respond as urgently as possible to the needs that the assessment teams out on the ground in these flooded areas are bringing back.

So, we’re working very closely with the government. We’re working very closely with our sister agencies, with the U.N. Everybody is on the ground and scrambling to meet needs. But, again, the sheer scale of the crisis is overwhelming. The funding to translate needs and to meet needs is not there yet. And access remains a real problem. There are areas in the northwest where IRC, my own agency, has worked for 30 years that we simply still cannot access, even though the floodwaters up there have receded a little at the moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: You — you mentioned earlier the problems, the ongoing problems for this country. There have been some concerns, as in the past, of the Taliban stepping in to a situation like this. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

MICHAEL YOUNG: We have not seen that on the ground thus far. Obviously, security, in and of itself, is a big issue and remains so. The Taliban have in the past made public statements that humanitarian agencies and humanitarian workers may be targets. And so it’s something that we’re also aware for and plan for, but what we have not seen is any kind of extremist response to the flood itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, what can people do if they would like to help?

MICHAEL YOUNG: The simplest thing is to give money.

Money — you know, I can only speak for my own agency. And that money will immediately be translated into aid on the ground, clean water, hygiene kits, food, shelter materials, all of those basic things that will help people survive while they’re in exile and then return and rebuild.

You can give money, quite simply, by going to the International Rescue Committee’s Web site, www.theirc.org. And that money hits the ground running.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as we said, we — it sounds like we heard in that report, and it sounds like you agree, this is just the beginning. This is going to go on for a long time beyond the immediate needs.

MICHAEL YOUNG: Absolutely. I mean, as your report encapsulated, just look at agriculture alone. Millions of acres of standing crops vital to Pakistan’s future have been destroyed. It’s a very fragile time window in which people have to — hopefully, the floods recede — would have to plant, for instance, a new wheat crop.

And as well as meeting the immediate relief needs of people have, we have to be right now acting, planning for and acting on the medium-term and the future in terms of recovery.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michael Young, thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL YOUNG: Thank you.