What is a disaster?
We have been grappling with—and trying to come to terms with—this word over the last few weeks as we perused countless articles and replayed footage of the destruction incurred by massive floods in Pakistan. The floods have affected 21 million people, making them the worst natural disasters in recent history.
We have seen an old man clinging to broken infrastructure for dear life as monstrous waters threaten to sweep him away; small girls crumpling at the mention of a school they can no longer afford to attend; women crying into their shawls as they watch their almost lifeless children lie on a medical table, weak with waterborne diarrhea. We have seen images of young men carrying their children as they wade through waist-high water, a newborn girl lying beside her spent mother on a dirt road with only a saucer to cushion her head, teenage boys sobbing into one another’s shoulders as they complain to their country’s president that they have received absolutely nothing in aid. These are only the people who have been reached by media and relief agencies. There are still thousands, if not millions, who, for over two months, have just been waiting.
About the floods, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said, “The world has never seen such a disaster. It’s much beyond anybody’s imagination.”
The floods are the result of heavy monsoon rains that began in July and have taken the lives of over 2,000 people while affecting over 21 million individuals. This makes the Pakistan floods worse than the Haiti earthquake, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2004 Asian tsunami—combined. Currently, an area the size of Italy is still underwater. Floodwater continues to rush downstream, affecting more and more people as time passes. Entire villages and buildings, including 7,000 schools, 400 health facilities, and 5,000 miles of roads have been simply washed away by the unyielding waters. The livelihood of the millions affected, which includes livestock and 1.7 million acres of farmland, has largely been obliterated.
And there is no end in sight. There is a tremendous fear of an outbreak of water-borne diseases, including malaria, cholera, respiratory infections, and especially diarrhea, which can be fatal. The young and the old are the most vulnerable to this second wave of death. Even those who are treated for their illness become sick again almost immediately after returning to their makeshift homes. 11 million children are at risk for such deadly diseases. Does the meaning of the word “disaster” even begin to cover these possibilities?
Unfortunately, there has been both a global and an American apathy about what has been called by Ban Ki-Moon “one of the greatest tests of global solidarity in our times.” The tremendous lack of international support for flood victims has been described as “quite extraordinary” by Louis-George Arsenault, the director of emergency operations for UNICEF in New York. Yet, the world has responded adequately to disasters before. What has rendered this disaster less worthy than others?
The question returns again: What is a disaster?
A disaster is tragic, but maybe it also has to do with heartbreak, the kind of heartbreak that has to do with the incongruity of everything utterly changing in just a few moments. The heartbreak of having spent a year tending to the crops that would generate income and, just when they were ready for harvest, watching them splinter away into the inescapable torrent of monsoon rain. Or the heartbreak of going to bed safely at night and waking to find a rapidly flooding home and a drowning village. Maybe it also has to do with unfairness. Like the planet being full of food, medicine, and technology, and yet millions risking death from the lack of that. Like living to see the worst humanitarian disaster in recent history, and seeing that the global response is hardly even half as adequate as it needs to be.
Perhaps it is called a disaster when 21 million look around and find only water, but none to drink.
In these first few weeks of school, we hope that our campus community can join hands and work to repair the tragedy, heartbreak, and unfairness of this disaster of epic proportions. Every dollar goes a long way in this country in which more than 73 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. One dollar is capable of feeding four people; $10 clothes them. In these times of increased instability, let us find our security in activism and hope.
A fifth of Pakistan may be underwater, but hope is unsinkable.
Gulrana Syed, Maha Ahmad, Aliya Bagewadi, Shiraz Gallab, Ayesha Siddiqi, and Madiha Shaukat are members of UChicago for Pakistan, a coalition of RSOs, undergraduates, and graduate students for flood relief in Pakistan.