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US Emerges as Unexpected Savior in Pakistan's Flood Crisis

It was a somber Independence Day in Pakistan this August 14, when the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, announced in a televised address that the worst floods in the history of the country had affected 20 million. That is more people than those impacted by the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2004 Tsunami combined. The death toll is currently estimated to be between 1,300 and 1,600, but is expected to rise as aid agencies are already seeing the outbreak of disease in ill-equipped emergency flood relief camps. The United Nations has reported the first case of cholera, and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has said that up to 3.5 million children could be infected by waterborne diseases.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon visited the ravaged country on August 15, and described 'heart-wrenching' scenes. "I will never forget the destruction and suffering I have witnessed today. In the past I have visited the scenes of many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this," he stated. "The scale of this disaster is so large so many people, in so many places, in so much need."

The floods were set off by unprecedented monsoon rains and a lack of infrastructure. Boston University-based environmental expert Professor Adil Najam, who has contributed to Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize-winning paper on climate change, told me the disaster was human-manufactured. He argued, "Deforestation in the North (of Pakistan) has robbed nature of its natural barriers, and bad urban planning made streets turn into torrential rivers. I hope we will ... realize that whether we 'cause' climate change or not, it is we - and especially the poorest amongst us - who will suffer its gravest consequences."

As is quite common in third world countries or 'the poorest amongst us,' where the state leaves a void, it is non-government organizations and individuals who must fill it. This has become especially true for Pakistan where ordinary people feel the global community has not stepped up to assist relief efforts, and is being perceived by most Pakistanis to be ungenerous.

Interestingly, the United States has managed to win favor at this time. The US is a crucial ally to Pakistan, made unpopular in the recent past due to repeated drone attacks that Pakistanis claim result in civilian fatalities. Where appreciation is hard won by the US, the delivery of much-needed helicopters, marines and food aid has been highlighted by the media networks that carry a great deal of influence in Pakistan.

Television news channel Express 24/7 reporter, Shaheryar Mirza micro-blogged under his Twitter identity, @mirza9 on US relief efforts. "US govt rescued 750 people yesterday and delivered 100k+lbs of goods with 2 choppers.Tomorrow thy send 5 choppers out up to north," he tweeted on August 12. "US consul general William Martin says the US will continue aiding #Pakistan through relief and through rebuilding process."

By comparison, Pakistanis had voiced disappointment in their Muslim allies, of whom only Turkey, Kuwait and the UAE made immediate pledges. After much criticism, Saudi Arabia finally came through to announce $105 million on August 18, nearly three weeks subsequent to the initial floods that hit in the end of July. With this amount, Saudi Arabia may have exceeded the US contribution of $87 million, but the 19 American helicopters that have been ferrying people and goods have won appreciation in the Pakistani media.

According to Oxfam, international contributions do not meet the standards that were set by disasters such as the Haitian earthquake this year and the tsunami of 2004. The agency's comparative study shows that $742 million were committed to Haiti within the first ten days of the earthquake, while for Pakistan less than $45 million were committed. While this is not surprising given how unpopular Pakistan is in the global media, people on the ground have rolled up their sleeves, and gotten to work.

Dr. Nezihe Hussain, a voluntary worker with the Pakistan Medical Association, an organization doing health care work in relief camps, warned that flood relief efforts even by ordinary Pakistanis need to be sustainable. She said, "What is crucial is that people realize that donations should not stop after Ramzan (the Muslim holy month of fasting and giving to charity). The floods have caused inconceivable horrors, and those will not just continue but will grow unless we, Pakistanis, keep on giving and helping."

As for the future, analyst Cyril Almeida makes grim predictions for Pakistan's economy. In his column for prestigious English daily newspaper, Dawn, he wrote, "Gone will be the days of load-shedding (scheduled power outages that last as long as 8 hours a day) -- because there will be no electricity at all in the grid. Inflation, which has stayed stubbornly high, will spike again."

Many Pakistanis feel and humanitarian organizations say that unless the international community does not meet the need of the hour, it does not bode well for the frontline state in the war against terrorism.