On the Ground in Pakistan Amid the Flood Crisis

BY Jeffrey Kaye  August 23, 2010 at 5:11 PM EST

Special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye is reporting for the NewsHour in Pakistan this week on the flood crisis there. Kaye gives Hari Sreenivasan an overview of his reporting plan and provides a written dispatch from Islamabad below.

ISLAMABAD | The unfolding disaster in Pakistan is more than just a short-term calamity. It is a slow motion crisis on a massive scale. For starters, think of the combined populations of the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Phoenix being simultaneously affected by flooding, and you start to get some appreciation of the scope of the disaster.

Even before we landed in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, we got a very small taste of what may be ahead. Instructed by the control tower to not risk trying to fly down through the pelting monsoon rains, the pilot circled the city for more than an hour before arriving in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Freshly printed, taped-up signs greeted arrivals in the airport terminal: “Welcome Respected Donors.” Pakistan has been urging the international community for assistance, and although $815 million has been committed or pledged, the continued need greatly outstrips the aid now trickling in. Blue uniformed immigration officials went down the line looking for arrivals with “Flood Relief” stamped in their visas. That way, aid workers could quickly move through the system and get on with their work.

After we gathered our belongings and drove away, we passed a sign for the airport, named for Benazir Bhutto, the former-prime minister assassinated in December 2007. It was a reminder of the turbulent nature of the nation we had come to report on. Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari is now the president of Pakistan and has faced growing criticism since the flooding began in early August. He was touring Europe as the flood waters rose and tore through the center of the country along the path of the Indus River, creating a corridor of destruction. The flooding killed at least 1,500 people, left millions homeless and without shelter, destroyed crops, livestock and anything else in its path. Millions of buildings have been destroyed, and the lifeblood of the nation — agriculture — is in tatters.

Over the past weeks, my producers and I have been gathering information and making plans with officials from relief organizations, the United Nations, and representatives of the U.S. government. We intend to tell the story of one affected area, report on the short and long-term implications of the flood, and try to understand some of the political factors at play.

Aid workers say they are worried about the potential for chronic diseases, an aspect of the story we also intend to make a particular focus. They expect outbreaks of waterborne ailments such as diarrhea, cholera and anemic dysentery. In addition, skin infections, scabies, and malaria, and respiratory diseases are also real threats. Some of the infections are spread by contaminated water, others by unhygienic living conditions. In some temporary encampments, villagers are forced to live in close to their surviving livestock, a situation which only increases the risk of spreading diseases.

One piece of good news that we have heard came from Steve Claborne, country director of the Mercy Corps relief organization. He said that donations from overseas, which at first looked fairly meager, are picking up as global concern about Pakistan mounts.

In Pakistan, 40 percent of the population makes a living from agriculture. And with so much cropland underwater, this year’s harvest is practically wiped out. There is also concern that the next crop yield is in jeopardy as well — a representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. told me that more than 500,000 tons of wheat seeds have been destroyed in the flooding. Plus, more than 200,000 livestock have been killed in the floods. Animals are fundamental to poor agrarian economies: Many people have their savings invested in them, and use them instead of tractors.

Finally, there are the political issues. Although the U.S. is donating more assistance than any other nation, the majority of Pakistanis — according to a recent survey by Pew — view America as an enemy. In one part of Pakistan, U.S. helicopters drop food supplies and ferry people fleeing rising flood waters. Elsewhere in the country, in North Waziristan, unmanned drone planes have reportedly run bombing missions, killing alleged insurgents. Can the U.S. win friends by distributing relief supplies and rescuing flood victims? Or will some Pakistanis in need be won over by insurgent or Taliban groups who in some areas provided food and shelter more quickly than the government or foreign NGOs? How will the Pakistani public react to their own political leaders?

And some residents are worried that when they return to their homes, they may find them occupied by land robbers. That’s just one example of how this crisis is likely to persist, even as the flood waters and headlines recede.