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UN Humanitarian Chief John Holmes: The Magnitude of the Pakistan Floods Is Unprecedented

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The United Nations is warning millions of Pakistanis are at risk of deadly waterborne diseases more than two weeks since Pakistan’s worst-ever flooding began. The World Health Organization says around six million people — over half of them children — face the threat of cholera and dysentery, as well as typhoid and hepatitis. The flooding has killed over 1,600 people and displaced 20 million — nearly 12 percent of Pakistan’s population. We speak to UN Humanitarian Chief John Holmes and Pakistani analyst Mosharraf Zaidi. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The United Nations is warning millions of Pakistanis are at risk of deadly water-borne diseases more than two weeks since Pakistan’s worst-ever flooding began. The World Health Organization says around six million people — over half of them children — face the threat of cholera and dysentery, as well as typhoid and hepatitis.

Thomas Batardy of Doctors Without Borders said in addition to destroying crops and homes, the floodwaters could bring further devastation with the spread of disease.

    THOMAS BATARDY: [translated] People are swimming in floodwater, water that’s picked up all the dirt and germs that were in the ground and in places where sanitation standards were lacking. People are bathing in contaminated water. Obvioulsy that carries a health risk for the people.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The flooding has killed over 1,600 people and displaced 20 million, nearly 12 percent of Pakistan’s population. Flood victims continue to hold protests against the lack of aid. On Monday, hundreds of people blocked a main road in Sindh province with stones and debris.

    MOHAMMAD LAIQ: [translated] There seems to be no government here since the floods. We lost our children, our livestock. We could hardly save ourselves. Though we’ve come here, we are getting nothing. Where is the government? What do we do? Where do we go? We have to tell the government, and it’s the responsibility of the government to do whatever is possible.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Al Jazeera reports overwhelmed medical workers were forced to turn away patients at a main hospital in Peshawar in order to prioritize care for sick children. Despite the devastation, international donors have provided little help. Just 20 percent of a UN appeal for $460 million has been met.

In a visit to Pakistan, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the massive floods as the worst natural disaster he has ever witnessed and urged greater international aid.

    SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: I will never forget the destruction and sufferings I have witnessed today. In the past I have visited scenes of many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this. The scale of this disaster is so large, so many people, in so many places, in so much need. Nearly one out of ten Pakistanis has been directly or indirectly affected. Possibly 20 million people, one-fifth of the country, is ravaged by floods.

AMY GOODMAN: That was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pleading for international aid.

We’re joined right now by the UN’s top humanitarian official: Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes. He accompanied Ban in Pakistan this past weekend.

We’re also joined on the line from Pakistan by Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani analyst based in Islamabad. He writes regular columns for The News of Pakistan and Al-Shorouk of Egypt, which can be found at his website

John Holmes, let’s begin with you. What did you see in Pakistan? And what needs to be done?

JOHN HOLMES: Obviously the most striking thing when we were there was the sheer extent of the flooding, stretching from south to north for more than 1,500 miles and affecting, as you said, 20 million people. It’s not that this is a more dramatic disaster than, say, the Haiti earthquake, and certainly and fortunately, the death toll is much less. But the extent of it, the magnitude of it, the number of people affected, are, in many ways, unprecedented. That’s what we’re trying to face. That’s why it will be some time, I’m afraid, before all the people in need are reached either by the government or by UN agencies or NGOs or the Red Cross, Red Crescent, trying to help.

What we’re trying to do is make sure that the international community gives us the resources we need. Actually, things are improving. The latest figures this morning suggest that if you count the contributions and pledges, we’ve got about half of what we asked for last week. We asked for $460 million; we’re about at $220 million, counting the contributions and pledges. And that’s not a bad figure for this stage of an appeal. And, of course, other aid is flooding in from different countries bilaterally, as well. But it’s going to take a long time, because the sheer magnitude of the disaster is such that the numbers are overwhelming everybody.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And John Holmes, what is the issue now in Pakistan? The UN is warning against the spread of waterborne diseases. Can you talk about that?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, obviously, very large numbers of people have been displaced. They’re living in the open. They need food. They need water, clean water. They need shelter. And, of course, they need medical supplies. And our biggest fear, as you suggest, is waterborne diseases — acute watery diarrhea; diarrhea of different kinds; malaria, because, of course, mosquitoes are spreading in these kind of stagnant water conditions; skin diseases like scabies. These are all very much endemic in a disaster like this, and we need to do everything we can, working with the government, to make sure there isn’t a second wave of deaths, which actually could be much greater than the first.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe more what you saw on your trip with Ban Ki-moon, with the Secretary-General, who said this is the worst disaster he has ever seen?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I say, what was striking was we flew in a helicopter for around a hundred miles altogether, down the Indus River and some of the other river systems in Punjab. And wherever we flew, wherever we looked, as far as the eye could see, there was water and flooding — villages cut off, crops flooded, roads destroyed, bridges destroyed, breaches in the dams, railways cut off, railway engines sitting in — halfway covered with water, power stations not functioning. It was the sheer size of what we saw. And, of course, what we were looking at was the most fertile area of the country, which the country depends on for its food supplies and, of course, partly for its economic success. And these crops, for the greatest extent, I guess, are already lost. And that points to another huge problem we face, not right now, but very soon, which is how to help the farmers restore their livelihoods. They need to get — as soon as they can get back onto their — back to their homes and back onto their fields, they need help in terms of seeds and fertilizers and tools and rehabilitation of the irrigation systems to start planting, because the planting season will be with us very soon. Otherwise, we’ll face another food security crisis of a very serious kind in a few months’ time, because there will be no crops.

AMY GOODMAN: John Holmes, we just played a clip in the lede into this of a man named Mohammad Laiq. He was protesting because he’s saying, “There seems to be no government here since the floods. We lost our children, our livestock. We could hardly save ourselves. Though we’ve come here, but we are getting nothing. Where is the government? What do we do? Where do we go? We have to tell the government, and it’s the responsibility of the government to do whatever possible.” What is the role of the government here?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, of course, the government is the primary responder. They are primarily responsible for looking after the welfare of their people. And we are there to help. And, I say, UN agencies and NGOs and others are doing their best to scale up our presence, get the resources, get more staff in, get the supplies there.

But the reality is also, as I was trying to suggest at the beginning, that we’re all overwhelmed, government included, by the sheer size of this disaster, stretching the length of the country and covering more than one-tenth of the population. It simply isn’t possible, with the best will in the world, and even with the best-organized government in the world, to reach all those people in a few days. That’s the nature of the challenge we face. If you remember, the Haiti earthquake, which was a huge disaster, beginning of this year, but that only affected three million people. Even there, it took us a long time to reach everybody with the food and clean water and shelter they needed. So, that’s some measure of the challenge we face here.

AMY GOODMAN: John Holmes, the world — the US, mainly — has spent more than a trillion dollars on war. What do you need countries to do right now for Pakistan?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, what we need in the immediate future is for countries to contribute to the appeal we’ve made for $460 million or send bilateral aid or make sure that the agencies and the NGOs have the help they need. That’s for the next few weeks. Then there will be the major problem of early recovery for farmers, in particular, as I suggested, and the beginnings of the recovery of some of the infrastructure — the roads and the bridges, which need to be repaired, at least temporarily, to enable movement to restart. And then, for the longer term, there is a huge problem of how to rebuild the infrastructure that’s been destroyed. There’s, again, the bridges, the roads, the power stations, the communications links of all kinds. That’s a program which may take years and will cost billions of dollars. And it’s very important that the international community not only responds right now, but it also responds in a sustainable way and helps the government deal with those longer-term problems, because, otherwise, the economic prospects of Pakistan are going to be very badly affected. And, of course, that will have a wider effect on the stability of Pakistan and the region.

AMY GOODMAN: This issue of war, though, whether we’re talking Haiti, where so many of the countries have not fulfilled their promises to Haiti after the earthquake, and Pakistan, the US continuing the drone attacks in northwest Pakistan, for example, in the midst of this, the worst crisis Pakistan has faced, natural disaster, in its history, what do you say about that?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, I think the immediate focus has to be on humanitarian relief for the flood victims. Now, unfortunately, it’s also true that the insurgency, whatever you want to call it, from the Taliban is not going to go away just because of these floods. There’s been a temporary lull, because everybody’s been affected by the floods, including the terrorists, no doubt. But that’s not going to go away. But the immediate focus has to be on this humanitarian relief. And there’s always been an argument about the balance between what you spend on military spending and military operations and what you spend on education and other things. We need to make sure we’re spending the right amounts of money on the civilian infrastructure, the civilian help, the civilian basic services like education and health, because that’s the key to long-term stability in any country.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And finally, John Holmes, the issue of climate change and global warming. This is the worst-ever flooding in Pakistan. You were in Niger earlier this year, which is facing a terrible drought. This is one of the hottest years on record, one of the hottest decades on record. How has global warming and climate change impacted humanitarian crises around the world?

JOHN HOLMES: Well, of course, you cannot legitimately ascribe any one disaster to climate change. We’ve always had natural disasters. We’ve always had floods and droughts. But what we’ve been predicting, what the scientists have been predicting, is these natural disasters caused by climate, whether droughts or floods or tropical storms or cyclones or whatever they may be, will become more frequent, more intense and more unpredictable. And that, I’m afraid, is exactly what’s happening. We had an extraordinary event in northern Pakistan, where ten times the normal annual rainfall for one of those areas fell in four days. This is unprecedented. And, of course, you see the similar sorts of things happening in Africa, in Asia, in Central America. The farmers no longer know when to plant, because the rains don’t come at the time they used to come. All these are the kind of effects of climate change that we’ve feared and are beginning to come to pass, I’m afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: John Holmes, we want to thank you for being us, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, as we turn in Islamabad now to Mosharraf Zaidi, the Pakistan-based analyst.

Describe what is happening there. This is a natural catastrophe of enormous proportions, Mosharraf, but also made worse by a government that many complaining are not there. In fact, literally, the president went to Britain while this was happening, even his inner circle begging him not to go.

MOSHARRAF ZAIDI: Yeah. I think, you know, it’s — I think it’s important to just separate out some of the facts from some of the sort of hoopla and the hype. It’s absolutely true that this government, and governments, in general, in Pakistan, tend to become tone deaf, you know, a few months after gaining power. And that’s because the spoils in Pakistan are so large. This is — people often don’t recognize how large a country this is. We’re looking at a population of anywhere between 180 and 200 million people. So, you know, there’s a lot to be enjoyed, in terms of the fruits of power.

President Zardari’s visit to the UK was ill-advised. He was advised against it, as you said, by his own inner circle, as well. He chose to go. But really, I think this narrative that’s developed about Pakistan over the last several years, and largely well-deserved narrative, of state — you know, state complicity with negative forces in Afghanistan and the state support for freedom fighters in Kashmir that then extends into terrorism in India — all of those negative storylines about Pakistan have now almost conspired to create a situation in which, even when, you know, in fairness, there’s no real grounds for the kind of brutal criticism that the Pakistani government is getting, it still gets it.

This is, let’s remember, as you just discussed with John Holmes, the worst natural catastrophe in the country’s history, possibly anything — I don’t think we’ve seen anything worse, in terms of number of people affected, for many, many decades. Just to give you a sense of how bad the rain was that caused this flooding initially, on the 28th of July, there was 318 millimeters of rain just on one day. To put that into context, the record, all-time record, for rain in Peshawar, which is where this number is from, for one month, the month of July, was 217 millimeters. So it rained more in one day than it had ever rained in an entire month for the monsoon season. The floods that have ensued — and there’s been two waves of these floods now — there’s no government in the world that could have prepared for this or that could have responded to this in the way that we would have liked it to.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Mosharraf Zaidi, the US government has provided millions — billions in aid to Pakistan over the years, but in military aid. What is your sense right now of the international community’s response to this crisis? And also, what is happening right now with regards to the media in Pakistan and the crackdown on the media?

MOSHARRAF ZAIDI: Let’s — just on the aid first. I think the aid that Pakistan has been getting from the US until about 2008 was almost exclusively military. There was a few hundred million dollars for education and what have you. And, you know, there were some reviews, and they found some problems with the aid money. But the bulk of US assistance has been for military, for the Pakistani military, and for military hardware. Almost $4 billion of US aid to Pakistan has been sent back to the United States, so that the Pakistani military could acquire the latest and shiniest toys of destruction.

The current situation, in terms of aid, is that there’s a billion-and-a-half dollars a year that’s parked in Washington, DC, that the Pakistani government doesn’t have access to and that rightly, I think, many senators and congressmen want to make sure is spent in a way that delivers benefits to poor Pakistanis. But I think the floods represent an entirely new dimension. They represent a game changer. Hillary Clinton, on her visit recently to Pakistan, spoke for about $500 million of that $1.5 billion. The rest of the money, I think, without any delay, needs to be allocated towards humanitarian relief. And it doesn’t have to go through government. I think some of it will have to, just because there’s things that only government can do, but a large chunk of that money can go through the many, many international and domestic nonprofits and NGOs that are doing such a phenomenal job in the face of such a dire catastrophe.

AMY GOODMAN: Mosharraf Zaidi, we want to thank you very much for being with this, Pakistan-based analyst, writes columns for The News of Pakistan and Al-Shorouk of Egypt. You can go to his website at

This is Democracy Now!

We’ll go to, next, another catastrophe. It continues after seven months, the earthquake in Haiti. Thousands of people are being displaced, even from the makeshift camps that they’ve been in since the earthquake.

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