The mathematics of disaster

Published: August 9, 2010
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Sixteen percent of our total landmass is currently inundated with water - and this is could just be the beginning

Can anyone – anyone at all – in this country do some simple math?

The Pakistani premier, Yusuf Raza Gilani (whom I imagine all those wonderfully enlightened Zardari-bashers will vote for in the next election, given how badly they wanted someone on the ground, overlooking the relief efforts… what’s that? You don’t vote at all?) has said that 132,000 square kilometers of Pakistani territory has been affected by these floods.

According to Wikipedia, Pakistan’s total territory cover 803,940 km-sq.

Sixteen percent of our total landmass is currently inundated with water. And that’s just KP and Punjab. By the time that flood hits Sindh, we could be looking at nearly a fifth of Pakistan being impacted.

Now imagine the entire population of New Delhi – spread over 132,000 square kilometers – suddenly in need of a new home, food aid, medicines and clothes. According to official estimates, up to 12 million people will be impacted by this flood. Comparisons to how well the army handled the 2005 earthquake relief efforts aren’t just wrong, they’re stupid.  We’re not simply talking about houses being destroyed or roads being shut down. Over the next few days the Pakistani government will have to physically move tens of thousands of people from their homes to higher ground, to say nothing of the millions already displaced.

By way of reference, Hurricane Katrina displaced about one million people. CNN and BBC report 100,000 people caught directly in the flooding of New Orleans, and about 3 million people without electricity. The US government still faces criticism for the way in which low-income families in particular were impacted by the disaster.

So when Fatima Bhutto calls this flood “Zardari’s Katrina,” one can safely assume that a university education was entirely lost on her because she clearly cannot grasp even the rudiments of math. However much the United State’s trillion-dollar economy reeled from the billions of dollars in damage, it will be nothing compared to the relative cost of crop, infrastructure and livelihood destruction during Pakistan’s floods.

Population boom and climate change aside, Pakistan typifies the fate of the developing world in its fragile balance on the edge of disaster. Every year floods in Bangladesh displace millions of people, yet no Bangladeshis line up on the streets of London to piss all over a democratically elected figure, no matter how flawed their judgment might be (or how many charges of corruption tail him or her). Let’s be very clear – any government faced with a disaster on this scale would need, at the very least, all the expertise and support it can get within its own country.

If you are a Pakistani, and you do know math, the important thing is to ask what is needed, immediately. There are commendable ongoing efforts to raise funds and gather aid, but what we definitely, desperately need is a rapid assessment of damage, which will require some expertise in flood management and humanitarian aid, but also concerted efforts to collect and share information.

And in that, we are perhaps better-off than we were in 2005. The few private channels at the time ran tickers of damaged areas and ran appeals for food and medicine aid. Now, with an enormous network of mobile phone users and thousands of media satellite offices spread across the country, it is possible to piece together a detailed disaster map for relief agencies and the government to use. Additionally, we need a whole host of donors – not just the usual suspects such as America and Europe – but also some unusual suspects, like India, to pledge volunteers, expertise and support.

The scale of this flood makes it clear that disaster management in the future will no longer be the sole responsibility of one government. As developing states become increasingly economically fragile, more and more people live at high risk of an environmental disaster. Whether or not the Pakistani government could have done better remains to be seen because the flood has not even run its course, let alone receded. One cannot begin to hand out F-grades before we even sit the test.

erum.haider

Erum Haider

A recent graduate from the University of Chicago, where she got an MA in Social Sciences. She is currently based in Karachi.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.