Five Years After Kashmir, Pakistan Faces a New Disaster

On Oct. 8, 2005, humanitarian aid crews responded to a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in the Kashmir region of Pakistan. Five years later, we mark the grim anniversary with more crews in the country attending to people displaced by flooding.

Logo-emblazoned rations and emergency tents serve as reminders of the earthquake. Not that people need any. In January, a bus containing the remains of 18 people was unearthed from rocks at the side of a road. They were identified through documents they carried and the Kashmir region mourned once more.

There are more than just physical reminders. Last month a new study detailed attitudes of Pakistanis in Kashmir towards Americans. In the areas most hard-hit by the earthquake, more than 60 per cent people said they trust Europeans and Americans. Just 40 kilometers out, attitudes more reflect the national average of one in six Pakistanis describing the U.S. as an enemy.

With floods displacing more than 20 million people, the United States hopes its rush to help victims will replicate the attitudes in Kashmir across the country. But, a logician like Steve Cooper knows you can't compare disasters.

Cooper worked in Kashmir in 2005 with Médecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). Today, he is handling the flood relief efforts. He carries a British passport but makes it clear he's Irish. There's no mistaking his accent or that he's an expert at getting his doctors into disaster zones.

Coordinating a response to the earthquake was one thing. But dealing with the floods that have engulfed the low-lying Swat Valley is entirely another.

"In general, everybody's stretched," he says. "You're down on the ground at certain points and this is really a massive disaster."

The epicenter of the Kashmir earthquake lay 100 kilometers north of Islamabad. An estimated 80,000 people needed immediate medical assistance, but landslides cut off the mountain roads. Cooper had to find helicopters for the MSF teams and their equipment including a 100-bed inflatable hospital with two operating theaters, to those in need.

That's how he came to understand that earthquakes and floods are different beasts.

"With the earthquake, it's an event that happens quickly and steadily," he explains. "You know if there are aftershocks or not. You know if the house is still there or not.

"Obviously it happened. The people have to go somewhere."

About four million had to go somewhere in 2005. Images of mothers clutching kids under refugee tents and snow-capped mountains spurred the international community to donate $6.7 billion. U.S. forces distributing aid bolstered the American image.

The United States again needs an image boost in Pakistan. It believes Pakistan's shared border with Afghanistan harbors Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents. A drone bombing campaign in the northwest of the country is the source of most anti-American sentiment throughout Pakistan.

The U.S flood response is humanitarian in nature. Those displaced by flooding need immediate help. But, this study confirms there are political benefits to intervention.

Even though the heavy monsoon rains that caused the flooding have stopped, this response must be sustained if the military expects those political benefits to emerge.

The flood waters are spreading out over farmland. It has become stagnant, increasing the risk of disease. It also destroyed the year's harvest, cutting off the main source of income to already-impoverished farmers.

"There's a different demographic involved," says Cooper. "In Kashmir, it was small subsistence farmers. Now it's ones employed by large landowners."

If there's one thing that remains the same with any disaster, it's that, politics aside, people need help urgently. In order to get through these floods, they need sustaining assistance until this disaster can be mitigated.

"They will help themselves," says Cooper. "They just need a little bit of a hand."