Pakistan: trapped between a natural disaster and armed violence
Two months of unprecedented flooding and the recent deterioration in security portend a grim future for millions of Pakistanis. André Paquet, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Islamabad, explains how the organization is trying to cope with the situation.
Eight weeks after flood relief operations commenced in Pakistan, how are ordinary people getting along?
Parts of the country are still submerged by floodwaters. In the north, people are gradually returning to their devastated homes. In the south, stagnant floodwaters still cover huge areas, leaving people in need of life-saving assistance. For millions, the crisis is still far from over. Damage to infrastructure and livelihoods is severe and will have a long-term impact.
The needs are so immense that no single agency or government can cover everything, whether in the short or in the longer term. Meeting the needs requires the combined effort of the government, the army, the international community, the UN, NGOs, donors and of course the communities themselves.
In partnership with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, the ICRC has provided one-month food rations and hygiene items for 575,000 flood victims and household and shelter items for a further 345,000 in selected areas, mainly west of the Indus river. The ICRC has also helped the members of more than 800 families to stay in touch by providing telephone links and tracing services. In addition, it continues to provide support for Pakistan Red Crescent health-care units and diarrhoea treatment units that have so far conducted more than 60,000 consultations.
Despite the massive humanitarian response to the flooding, millions of people still require emergency assistance, and millions more will require livelihood support once they return to their homes. The ICRC is preparing to help as many as 350,000 people to rebuild rural livelihoods over the coming months in the areas where it is active by providing seed, farm tools and other items. The magnitude of the needs is simply staggering.
What are the challenges facing humanitarian activities in Pakistan?
One cannot place too much emphasis on the fact that the flooding has come on top of armed violence already occurring in various parts of the country.
Thus, the primary challenge is for the Pakistani government and security forces to respond appropriately and comprehensively to the natural disaster and its consequences, and also to comply fully with the rules governing the conduct of security operations, not least in terms of facilitating the work of aid agencies in sensitive areas.
The ICRC is focusing its efforts on areas of the country, such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Balochistan, where it is not only involved in the ongoing flood response but remains geared towards helping victims of armed violence. In particular, we continue to support over 200,000 people displaced by the fighting in the north-west.
For the ICRC, the main challenge at present is clearly to obtain access. Of course there are security problems linked to crime, and logistical constraints, which prevent full and unhindered field deployment. Yet the main obstacles impeding humanitarian work stem from restrictions imposed by the authorities.
Lack of access by expatriate specialists working to help flood victims considerably limits our ability to do what is needed, such as enhancing the capacity of the Pakistan Red Crescent to deliver aid. Moreover, the lack of access results in widespread resentment and mistrust towards humanitarian organizations, particularly international ones, which are perceived as ineffective or as having a political or security agenda.
Our way of being effective is to do what is necessary to ensure that the work we carry out in partnership with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is recognized as being exclusively humanitarian in nature. The independence with which we carry out our work – which is the key to providing an impartial response based solely on need – must be fully recognized by the authorities. In particular, we need to be granted a level of access enabling us to carry out our work for victims of armed violence and flooding wherever they may be.
The recent news from Pakistan is more concerned with the security situation than with the floods. What impact does poor security have on the ICRC's flood-relief operations?
The security situation has a far greater and more immediate impact on the Pakistani people than on aid agencies.
Having said this, it is true that aid workers in Pakistan are in serious physical danger from crime and politically based hostility. No one can help the victims of armed violence and flooding in Pakistan unless at least a certain minimum level of security is maintained.
Now, since the ICRC's job consists of working in situations of conflict and other armed violence all over the world, we have stringent procedures in place for managing the security of our staff in even the most volatile situations. In Pakistan, the ICRC is well known for the work it has carried out in the country over several decades on behalf of victims of conflict, other armed violence and natural disasters. Because we have been working here for so long, our actions and humanitarian agenda are entirely transparent and well understood. We regularly inform government and security agencies of our plans, and do not take action unless what we do and how we do it is understood and accepted.
An effective, truly-impartial humanitarian operation that has no other agenda than that of helping people is, we believe, what is required to enlist the acceptance and respect of people on the ground.