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Why the world must help Pakistan

By Daniel Toole, Special to CNN
  • Toole: After decades of working in emergencies, never have I seen such devastation
  • The world's response to the disaster has been "woefully inadequate," he says
  • Hundreds of thousands of people remain cut off from relief supplies, Toole says
  • "As ordinary Pakistanis have helped each other, we need to rise to their moment"

CNN has had thousands of comments about the aid effort for the flood victims in Pakistan. Many comments express a reluctance to donate for fear that money will not reach the people in need but will instead end up with terrorists or corrupt officials. Here, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia, Daniel Toole, who has just returned from Pakistan, responds.

(CNN) -- From the sky, the massive inland sea of water stretches beyond the horizon -- flashbacks from a different disaster with a puzzlingly different response to the same desperation.

A watery landscape punctuated by the tops of trees, electricity poles going nowhere in the water and small patches of land with marooned families huddled together with the scraps they still hold as they fled the floodwaters tearing through their country.

One fifth of Pakistan is under water. Imagine if you woke up tomorrow morning and heard that the whole of England or the state of Florida were completely submerged? Crops, markets, roads, schools, communities and houses generations toiled to build up submerged in water and many, simply washed away.

After decades of working in emergencies around the world, never before have I seen such astonishing devastation. The only thing that comes close in recent times is the tsunami, with many times more deaths, but similar destruction.

Video: Returning home to nothing

The public debate that surged in the early days of the Asian tsunami started off on a similar pattern -- would it be possible to overcome the tremendous challenges? Would money be well spent or perhaps used by the wrong people? With so many different governments involved, could governments, the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies ensure those in need would be reached?

But the compelling television images swiftly triggered an extraordinary outpouring of human support with vast quantities of money and human resources. Too much in fact, and UNICEF went public and stopped taking funds.

Today, right across the tsunami-affected region, there is shining testimony -- from environmentally-friendly sewerage plants to child-friendly schools -- of how national governments and humanitarian agencies "built back better."

The same can be done in Pakistan -- given half the chance -- but the response has been woefully inadequate.

The only thing that comes close in recent times is the tsunami
--Daniel Toole

These flood waters are not going away anytime soon -- the threat remains high, outstripping relief efforts. The government estimates that some 20 million Pakistanis have been affected in one way or another by the floods, more than eight million of them children under the age of 18.

Nearly four million young children are the most vulnerable, at risk of contracting deadly waterborne diseases like dysentery, diarrhea and cholera on top of endemic diseases like measles and polio.

I visited a health post in Sindh Province where the number of cases of acute diarrhea was already four times pre-flood levels; and children die quickly of diarrhea and its deadly partner, dehydration.

This is no time to wait. On the ground, I talked to many mothers. One with five children managing with nothing at all in the intense heat and flies -- more than 40 C (104 F.) Sweat dripped down my face, my body. She fled the floods with her children, carrying no food, only the clothes she was wearing.

There are hundreds of thousands -- no millions -- like her. She has diarrhea and her children too are ill despite being at a safe camp where cooked food and clean water are provided. Her two-sided tent offers paltry protection. How will she survive this heat, what on earth will they do when it rains again?

At last count, five million Pakistanis are like her -- left homeless by the floods. Hundreds of thousands already face malnutrition, exposure, skin infections and respiratory illnesses. The threat of epidemics increases day by day.

With the slightest promise of receding waters the natural pull to return home is overwhelming. But for many it won't help -- no clean drinking water, no food stores, no animals, that's it -- emptiness and loss.

Camp life is life on hold. There have to be better ways of helping people when they're home. Because UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies already had teams on the ground, we were able to release emergency funds and start providing clean water, immunizations, medicines, health care and emergency food and non-food assistance from the very onset of the crisis.

There is a profound dignity in the way Pakistanis reach out to each other
--Daniel Toole

We are seeing a steady trickle of funds now and we and our partners are currently providing clean water to nearly two million people daily and nearly 800,000 thousand children have been immunized against deadly diseases.

And it's not enough. Hundreds of thousands of people remain cut off from relief supplies. There are shortages of doctors, health workers, 40 helicopters are needed -- almost everything.

Even buying soap or buckets for this many is difficult -- the need is so great.

Reputable organizations like UNICEF, World Food Programme, Save the Children, and the International Red Cross / Red Crescent have a long and proud track record of reaching and helping those in need. Impartiality, transparency and targeting those in greatest need first are at the heart of the work we do in any situation, and especially in emergencies.

There is a profound dignity in the way Pakistanis reach out to each other. This is Ramadan and they do not take even a sip of water from dawn until dusk.

I saw this in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake -- aid workers, leading relief efforts, working nearly round the clock to distribute vital food, clean water, medicines, and tents to the millions of displaced; neighbors, (deep in Pakistani tradition is the obligation to help your "biraderi" or members of the same clan,) sharing whatever they have with others that have been uprooted; helicopter pilots flying rescue missions and healthcare workers who spend their days treating the young, the frail, the elderly and the dispossessed, sharing whatever food is available in the evening on rare dry patches of land, miles from home.

For now this is how they share and show their common humanity. This enduring spirit of human generosity is what the world has shown again and again -- mostly recently in the Haiti earthquake even during a recession.

Video: Floods lead to crisis in Pakistan
Video: Challenges for aid workers
  • Pakistan

This time though the world has been inexplicably slow, inexplicably distracted. Could it be because there's an expectation this one country -- a nuclear power -- should be able to care for its own?

But this enormous disaster is beyond the power of any one government and disasters know no boundaries, respect no passports. This is beyond even the people -- the implications of this disaster run into the future.

The geography of this region, spread out in vast plains under the rooftop of the world, the Himalayas, is like the politics of this region -- unstable. This fragile fault line can shatter easily from lack of care, lack of solidarity.

So, as ordinary Pakistanis have helped each other on the ground, we too as members of the same "biraderi", the same human clan, need to rise to their moment and respond to their needs. We must do that today.

Too many Pakistanis are still waiting.

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