Haiti, Pakistan disasters ‘of similar magnitude’

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The humanitarian disaster in Haiti and Pakistan is similar in magnitude, International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva told the Brussels press on 27 August, just after her return from devastated Pakistan.

Asked by EURACTIV to compare the world's two worst calamities since she took office, Georgieva said that despite the different nature of the disasters, they were similar in terms of the scale of the destruction and the risk of epidemics. As such, both require an equally significant humanitarian effort from the international community as well as further development aid, she said.

Georgieva had returned the previous day from a two-day trip to Pakistan. With her hair covered by a veil, the commissioner visited the disaster-hit areas and talked to local officials as TV reports depicted scenes of havoc and stampedes over the distribution of humanitarian aid, as well as other cases of better-organised food distribution.

"Haiti and Pakistan, these two disasters are very similar in magnitude, but very different in how they occurred and how we are responding to them," Georgieva said.

She explained that the large number of deaths in Haiti was "heartbreaking," as in her words nearly 300,000 people had died. In Pakistan the number of people who died from the floods is estimated  to be between 1,500 and 2,000, but many more livelihoods were destroyed. The commissioner explained that for millions of people in Pakistan, livestock is life.

With a disaster area five times the size of Belgium, seventeen million people affected and 1.2 million houses washed away, the catastrophe in Pakistan is extremely challenging, and what makes it even more difficult to tackle is that 800,000 people are in areas that are very difficult to reach, she explained.

In Haiti, where in her words the international community had succeeded, the main challenges were preventing epidemics and preventing chaos. The risk of epidemics in Pakistan is significantly high too, she stressed.

"We also don't know whether we will be able to prevent chaos," she admitted.

"I have to be honest and before it gets better, it will be worse," Georgieva stated, explaining that humanitarian needs were going to be greater than estimated in the original appeal (see 'Background'). Soon, when the waters recede, it will be critical to rebuild the agricultural sector, she said, because if this opportunity is missed, Pakistan could have serious food and economic stability problems on its hands, she said.

Georgieva said that Pakistan was one of world's most vulnerable countries as far as natural disasters are concerned, including earthquakes. She said her objective was, among other things, to make the country more resilient for when disaster strikes again.

As far as European reaction is concerned, it was fast and it was very generous, Georgieva stressed. Concerns that the world would not be generous enough to Pakistan have now disappeared, she said.

The Haiti and Pakistan disasters will need to be compared again later, when a better assessment of the long-term needs can be made, Georgieva concluded.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and it has experienced a lot of political violence throughout its history. In February 2004, an armed rebellion forced the resignation and exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A provisional government was put in place, with security provided by MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti.

Scientists said the earthquake which hit the island on 12 January 2010 was the strongest on Earth since 1770. The damage was catastrophic, as the 7.0 magnitude epicentre was just 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince and its two million inhabitants. 

The number of deaths is considered to be around 300,000, but has yet to be determined officially. The devastation was widespread: vital infrastructure was destroyed, including every hospital in the capital, telecommunications and air, sea and land communication services. 

In Pakistan, which has been hit by unprecedented floods in recent weeks, the United Nations warned of a spiralling humanitarian catastrophe and asked the global community to provide aid to the value of $459 million for initial relief efforts.

But despite the arriving aid, only a small minority of the six million Pakistanis desperate for food and clean water have received help after floods that have killed up to 1,600 people and left two million homeless.

Hundreds of villages are isolated, highways and bridges have been cut in half by floods and hundreds of thousands of cattle - the livelihoods of many villagers - have drowned.

In a possible sign of respite for aid agencies, authorities said there were signs that monsoon rains could ease.

  • 10-11 Sept.: Gynmich (informal meeting of EU foreign ministers) to discuss humanitarian situation in Pakistan, looking at long-term development aid among other issues.

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