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October 23, 2005

The Pakistan Earthquake and Why We Need (a Competent) FEMA International
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Thanks to Katrina, Rita and even a weakened Wilma, this Fall has brought Americans a new appreciation of disasters and, in particular, of the human element that can turn natural calamities into first order political and social catastrophes.   

In the meantime, there are evidently about 10,000 children in Kashmir in imminent danger of freezing to death this winter as a result of the October 8 earthquake in India and Pakistan.  Large populations of survivors in remote areas have not yet been reached by any aid.  Temperatures are already dropping.  In scenes reminiscent of New Orleans, frightened helicopter drivers have turned around when faced by mobs of desperate survivors left waiting too long for food and water. 

Doctors and aid workers predict that a second massive wave of deaths is likely to occur as a result of untreated wounds and lack of shelter.  According to Kofi Annan, only a massive and to date unforthcoming infusion of international aid can stop this.  If it does happen, it will be inescapable that, alongside the earthquake itself, a second and more proximate cause of the deaths will have been the world's failure to mobilize and provide these trapped Pakistanis with the help they need.

While the news outlets have reported on the earthquake and its aftermath Americans, by and large, are taking a pass on this one.  Exhausted after Katrina and her successors, the US public = understandably yet no less tragically - has little appetite to get deeply engaged in the earthquake relief effort.  With the exception of Turkey, it appears that much of the rest of the world is following our lead and taking a pass on this one.

The needs are staggering.  Pakistan requires a half a million tents and an immediate helicopter mission on the order of the Berlin airlift to evacuate survivors.  NATO has volunteered 1000 troops but has rejected the UN's demand for a huge helicopter mobilization on grounds that it doesn't have enough of the vehicles to spare.   The US is sending just six helicopters, Britain four.   According to this article relief workers have "effectively admitted defeat - and issued a plea to the sick, wounded and dying to make their own hazardous journey across treacherous mountain passes on foot."

For a variety of reasons, the outpouring of concern and generosity that followed last January's tsunami has not been replicated in Kashmir.  The scope of the two disasters are not beyond compared.  The earthquake death toll is now at 79,000, compared to about 123,000 for the tsunami.  The UN has received only $57 million in pledges to meet what it calculates as a $312 million need.  By contrast, after the tsunami 80% of the funds needed were pledged within 10 days.   This article details the difficulties faced by the World Food Programme, one of the UN's best agencies, in meeting the needs without greater donor support.

[An related interesting side note that came up at the Princeton Conference some weeks back.  There's a big difference between the world's attitude toward the prospect large-scale deaths due to injury and exposure post-earthquake versus the risk of comparable loss of life due to a armed conflict. 

If tens of thousands of lives were hanging in the balance due to a murderous dictator, there would be calls for intervention to prevent genocide.  At the very least we'd see widespread hand-wringing.   Yet the lack of response to the earthquake has few Americans tied in knots.  Part of the reason for the distinction lies in the implications of killings (as opposed to deaths) for our social fabric.  Killings cause people to lose faith in one another, they unleash desires for revenge, they call into question the role and value of the state.  Yet, as Katrina illustrated, because of the high degree of human agency involved in responding to so-called "natural" calamities, deaths from these disasters can likewise tear apart a society.]

The glaring holes in the disaster response effort will have political ramifications:  analysts suggest that the army's failure to do more for survivors may weaken Musharraf's already shaky hold on power. 

Given the US's close ties to Musharraf and the demands its made on the Pakistani government as part of the fight against terror, its easy to foresee that already high levels of Pakistani anti-Americanism may only further intensify (the opposite happened in Indonesia after the tsunami, where the US's generosity led to sharply improved public attitudes toward us).  There are also reports that terrorist organizations have stepped into the void, viewing the chaos as a useful opportunity to win popular support and new recruits.

Why an International Version of FEMA is Needed . . .

"Given the regularity with which devastating natural disasters - hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, mudslides - occur, it seems worth exploring whether a beefed up standing international organization devoted to emergency preparedness and disaster relief ought to be created.  This would help ensure that misfortunes with the misfortune of, for example, coming within weeks of hurricane Katrina do not suffer as a result of donor fatigue, distraction or simple indifference.

The UN's humanitarian arms are the organization's most effective bodies, but they need larger scope and greater resources to single-handedly captain the world's response to the biggest crises.   They also need more reliable funding - this chart shows the gaping divide between resources pledged after disasters and the dollars actually delivered.

A standing emergency relief organization (probably built from existing UN organs which - unlike our own FEMA - actually know what they're doing when it comes to disaster relief) could function something like an insurance pool:  no one knows where the next disaster will strike.  If every country committed to making certain resources - financial, material, equipment, logistical support, etc. - on a stand-by basis, responders would not be faced with having to go cap-in-hand organizing hasty aid conferences in the critical immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, when speed is of the essence and delays in funding and mobilization are fatal.  The UN has something like this - a revolving fund to extend bridge financing for emergencies - but the crisis in Pakistan suggests this does not go far enough. 

A beefed up structure could in some respects work more like UN peacekeeping missions:  poor countries could contribute things like troops, other trained personnel, tents, helicopters and food knowing that they'll be reimbursed at competitive rates.  This might allow individual countries to save money on disaster preparedness, if they knew that they could rely on a highly competent centralized body and did not need to duplicate full-scale preparations at the country level.

As with peacekeeping, the costs of the relief effort could be borne by assessed rather than voluntary contributions thereby enabling planners to know that the money they need will be there.  A body comprised of actively involved member countries could approve the size and scope of operations, controlling the disbursement of funds. 

The US has mightily resisted paying assessed contributions for any additional UN programs, but after Katrina there may be greater willingness to entertain such a change.  From what this UN site reports, the US is by far the biggest donor to humanitarian aid efforts -- its not clear that assessing contributions for humanitarian aid missions would cost us anything more than we already contribute.   

It appears that the Organization of the Islamic Conference is already examining a coordinated disaster relief program.  Given the evidence in Indonesia that aid in a catastrophe can alter perceptions of the US and build ties between us and an Islamic state, taking the lead on international disaster prevention might contribute to desperately needed progress in rapproachement with the Muslim world.

We need to think about long-term ways to improve the global response to natural disasters.  In the meantime, this site lists some top-notch relief organizations who need our help right now in Pakistan.


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It is hard to think of a foreign assistance activity that is better remembered or that better demonstrates the qualities the US can be most proud of than immediate assistance in natural disasters. Both the technology and the manpower that the armed forces can bring to bear in a short time have a positive impact, and I expect that people remember the uniforms with the US flag patch on the shoulder along with the care and concern that the troops display. In the longer term, the military logistics expertise can keep things going when any other effort would stall. Beyond that, domestic emergency responders from the civilian sector can be brought to bear as well.

Working in multinational efforts requires advanced establishment of protocols, chains of command and communication, and a knowledge of the capabilities, experience and needs of the individual components and units. An essential point for a multilateral ad hoc enterprise is to have a command and control structure defined in advance with information at its fingertips - information on conditions at the site, roads, communication networks and health conditions as well as information about parties available to participate in the response effort (e.g. when they can be available, skills, equipment, fuel, transport and support requirements - including language capability).

Just as important as establishing a command structure, a communications network and a database of resources is the need to test the system regularly and, I think, to have a system of training and certification of the capabilities of the units that might participate in the system. That seems to be a major weak point of the current system of assigning units to peacekeeping missions. There also needs to be a system to audit the performance of each response effort so that problems are identifies and lessons are learned and applied.

There is a question in my mind whether the US could actually participate as an element of a combined emergency response command because of the reticence to put US units under foreign command, even though this would clearly be a temporary assignment.

Not to minimize in any way the need for more effective responses to natural disasters, but the lesson of Katrina and recent earthquakes in other countries is the need to emphasize measures to minimize casualties ahead of time.

There need to be better construction practices and vigilance in maintaining public works and private buildings. People in vulnerable areas also need to have local temporary supplies of water and food.

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