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U.N. Humanitarian Official on Global Effort to Aid Flood Victims in Pakistan

August 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: After three weeks of flooding that have devastated much of Pakistan, the United Nations today launched an appeal to raise almost $460 million in international aid. The deluge driven by severe monsoon rains has affected more than 14 million people. At least 1,500 have died, and nearly 300,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed.

For more on the global aid effort, we turn to John Holmes, the United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

Welcome.

Mr. Holmes…

JOHN HOLMES, United Nations Under-Secretary-General: Good evening.

GWEN IFILL: … Mr. Secretary, what can you tell us about this casualty count? It keeps shifting, and it only seems to go up.

JOHN HOLMES: I think the casualty count is probably lower than it should be at the moment, at 1,500. I think it’s very difficult to know in all these thousands of villages that have been washed away exactly how many people have died.

In fact, given the size of the disaster, the casualty rate, the death rate, is relatively low. What we’re most concerned about, because, obviously, we have to concern ourselves with the living more than the dead in terms of help, is that, as you say, 14 million people, or maybe even more than that, have been affected by this.

And this is far more than in most disasters, far more than in the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami, for example. And that means that we have at least half of those people very badly affected and need immediate humanitarian relief. So, that’s why we have launched this appeal today for $460 million, which is really just for the immediate priorities of food, clean water, shelter, tents, and plastic sheeting, and, of course, medical assistance, because our biggest fear is that waterborne diseases, diarrhea, cholera, whatever you want to call it, may start to spread and cause a much greater death toll amongst the survivors.

GWEN IFILL: So, when you talk about 14 million or whatever the number is affected, you’re talking about people who are affected by loss of their livelihoods, loss of their homes, and perhaps disease as well?

JOHN HOLMES: Exactly.

I mean, 14 million people is such a large figure, it’s quite hard to imagine. But you — you have to look at this on an individual level, and think that this is 14 million people or a large proportion of them who have lost everything. They have lost their village, their house, possibly some of their relatives, their agricultural land, their crops.

Virtually everything they had, all their possessions have gone. That’s why they need immediate humanitarian relief, not to mention, of course, that, in the median-term, in the longer-term, the damage to infrastructure is absolutely immense. The need to restore agriculture is huge, if we’re not going to face a food crisis further down the line.

So, what we’re talking about here, this $460 million we’re asking for from governments around the world, is only just the first step for the next few weeks.

GWEN IFILL: What has happened so far in terms of relief that has gotten to people in these remote areas? Has it been led by the U.N.? Has it been led by individual nations, by the Pakistani government?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, obviously, the Pakistani…

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

JOHN HOLMES: The Pakistani government themselves, of course, are in the lead. And they have been doing a lot of hard work trying to rescue people and evacuate those in front of the floodwaters. And let’s not forget this is not a disaster that is over.

It’s a disaster that is still continuing as the floodwater moves down into the central and southern regions of Pakistan. So, we may still face much bigger problems even than the ones we have today.

So, the Pakistan government have been in the lead, as they should be. Then the United Nations organizations, the big NGOs, World Vision, Oxfam, Save the Children, Concern, and others, are also working very hard on the ground. We were already there, of course, because of the conflict going on between the Taliban and the government of Pakistan, which had led to a lot of displacement in the northwest.

And we have simply shifted the focus of those operations to try and deal with the survivors of the floods. Now, the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people we have not reached yet and cannot reach at the moment because they’re simply inaccessible.

Bridges are down. Roads are down. Dams are being threatened. The infrastructure is extremely poor to start with, but is irreparably damaged by this disaster. And that means reaching them is a huge challenge for us for the future.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about the conflict in the region, the Swat region, which we have talked about so much on this program.

There have been reports that the Taliban actually got to the scene faster, or representatives of organizations linked to the Taliban, and that they are providing the kind of aid which would — might prove to be an obstacle for Western rescuers, if you know what I mean.

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I can understand the concerns about that.

Our concern from a humanitarian point of view is simply to make sure that aid reaches the people who need it, wherever they may be, whether they’re in areas controlled by the Taliban or areas controlled by the Pakistani government.

The conflict does pose some security problems for us, in terms of reaching some of those people, for example, in the Swat Valley, as you mentioned. But our main concern is — is not who gives the aid, but that people should get the aid, and get it very quickly.

I think what we need to understand is that this is a disaster of an enormous magnitude, the scale of which we’re only just beginning to comprehend even now. And that’s why we’re — we’re launching this appeal with such urgency and hoping that governments, but also people, will respond and will believe us when we say that the aid that they give us will reach the people who need it and will reach it quickly, without being diverted on the way or being lost, for example, in corruption.

It’s very important for people to understand that.

GWEN IFILL: But how do you persuade people of that? There have been so many reports about corruption in Pakistan. And it is unclear that — you just raised a question about security because of the presence of Taliban on the ground.

How do organizations, nations, corporations, individuals know that, if they contribute to this relief plan, that there’s even — it’s even possible for the aid to get through?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, of course, we will not try to deliver aid where it is impossible to do so. We will wait until we can do that.

The main point is, though, that this aid goes direct to U.N. organizations, the World Food Program, UNICEF, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Health Organization, all the big NGOs I mentioned earlier. It goes straight to them and straight from them, possibly involving some local NGOs on the ground which we have faith in, and straight to the people who need the help.

It doesn’t go through the government itself, for example. And, therefore, some of the problems which might be associated with development aid do not apply in this case of immediate humanitarian aid. That’s why I say people can be confident that the aid will reach the people who need it.

GWEN IFILL: And, briefly, three weeks in now on this disaster, any end in sight?

JOHN HOLMES: Not at the moment.

I think, as I say, the water is still coming down in very large quantities in some of the main rivers. Some of the big dams in the south are even threatened by the sheer volume of water, which would create an even bigger disaster. And, of course, the monsoon season is very far from over. Torrential rains may make the situation even worse yet. So, we expect the number affected and the number needing humanitarian relief to rise further, I’m afraid.

GWEN IFILL: United Nations Under-Secretary John Holmes, thank you so much.

JOHN HOLMES: Thank you.