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Pakistan: Quick Millions Promised for 'Slow-Motion Tsunami'

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United Nations -- The United States kicked off a stream of pledges for flood-damaged Pakistan, suffering not only from barely imaginable horrors but terrorism and an image problem.

Compared to the disasters in Haiti and the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the wallets have been slow to open, especially among Islamic nations and China. In response the U.N. General Assembly quickly organized a high-level session on Thursday to reap more pledges.

Afterwards, Pakistan's foreign minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters he believed the $460 million goal the United Nations set for immediate emergency care "is going to be easily met."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the disaster was like few the world had ever seen and required a response to match:

"Pakistan is facing a slow-motion tsunami. At least 160,000 square kilometers of land is under water. Fifteen to 20 million people need shelter, food and emergency care. That is more than the entire population hit by the (2004) Indian Ocean tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake, Cyclone Nargis, and the earthquake in Haiti - combined."

Flooding began on July 22 in Baluchistan province. Then the waters poured across the northwest before flowing south into Punjab and Sindh in the southwest and submerging about 20 percent of the country, an area larger than Italy. The monsoon rains, aided by melting of Himalayan glaciers, are expected to continue to October.

Millions of people lost their homes, farm land was obliterated, and roads, bridges and communication were severely damaged. Cotton exports are finished, leaving textiles as the main export (taxed heavily in the U.S.) The death toll is under 2,000 (less than Katrina) but is expected to increase unless clean water and sanitation is available. Hospitals are reporting a sharp rise in cholera, diarrhea and other water-borne diseases.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the United States, would contribute another $60 million for a total of $150 million in addition to the rescue missions by military and civilian helicopters in the area. Approximately $92 million would be channeled through the United Nations.

"Now, I realize that many countries, including my own, are facing tough economic conditions and very tight budgets. And we've also endured an unrelenting stream of disasters this year - from the earthquake in Haiti to the wildfires in Russia. But we must answer the Pakistani request for help. And as we meet, we fear that a new wave of water may be about to sweep through areas that have already been devastated and reach to those yet untouched."

British Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said London was doubling its contribution to nearly $100 million. And he said the British public had raised another $25 million so far. Belgium's Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, representing the European Union, promised $38.5 million in addition to the $138 million pledged earlier.

Mitchell went out of his way to urge that the donors support the UN relief efforts, presumably to prevent ad hoc, uncoordinated efforts rather than the more experienced organizations like the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement or U.N. agencies.

But some 50 Islamic nations appear to have lagged behind the West, although Saudi Arabia has just pledged more than $100 million in government funds and money collected from the public. (Little of it is going through the Pakistani National Disaster Management Authority and none through the United Nations.) China, a close ally, has helped 27,000 people near its border but large sums of money have not been forthcoming.

Many billions

"They've not made it clear what they are doing," Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said of Beijing. He told reporters it would take "many billions" for Pakistan to recover.

The world has been slow to react in Pakistan, where flooding began on July 19, some fearing endemic corruption, others linking the country to the Taliban and other militant groups. (They killed 100 people in suicide bombings in "dry" areas of Pakistan, over the last month).

In the first two weeks of the Haiti earthquake in January, an estimated $742 million was committed. After the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami in Asia, some $1.8 billion had been pledged within a week.

Martin Mogwanja, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Pakistan and a UNICEF staff member, told a telephone news conference that initial creeping floods were difficult to visualize. "The impact of this moving water, its force, its spread, has not been possible to convey easily," he said, adding that the international community was "only now beginning to realize the extent and impact of the problem."

Politically there is a lot of speculation about the aftermath of the floods. Will the Pakistani army mount another coup, particularly in light of President Asif Ali Zardari gaffes and his trip to Europe as the water drowned his countrymen? Will the Taliban be able to take over areas that the Pakistan militaryrecently controlled?

The Pakistani writer, Ahmed Rashid, said the some areas, like the Swat valley, could be recaptured by local Taliban, who are organizing relief aid. "The Pakistani floods are more than just floods. They herald a potential regional catastrophe. Unless the West acts quickly, the situation could rapidly become too difficult to contain," he wrote.
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FAST FACTS (from UN sources)
1,600 known deaths. Numbers are expected to rise as water-borne disease spreads
15-20 million people affected and in need of shelter, food or other aid
8 million people in desperate need of food, clean water
62,000 square miles affected
3.2 million hectares of agriculture crops, 200,000 herds of livestock destroyed
900,000 homes destroyed, leaving 4.6 million people homeless in Punjab and Sindh provinces alone.