Somehow it’s easier to grasp a tragedy such as the earthquake that leveled the capital of Haiti last year or the tsunami that hit South Asia in 2004 than it is to comprehend the slow-motion catastrophe that is unfolding with the floods in Pakistan. But Pakistan’s needs are no less urgent. In a nation beset by frequent natural and political disasters, this one has been called the worst since the creation of the country in 1947. A fifth of Pakistan is under water, and nearly 20 million people are displaced, homeless, in need of food. Some are climbing trees to escape the water — and to eat the leaves. Millions of acres of food and cash crops are deluged, as are about 300 bridges and highways. And it’s still raining, expanding the flood zones and making relief efforts all the more difficult.
After visiting Pakistan this week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said half a billion dollars was required to fund emergency relief, but only a quarter of that had been raised so far ($76 million of it from the United States). A special meeting of the U.N. General Assembly has been called for Thursday to discuss the flooding. Americans may be wary of sending more cash to a Pakistani government with limited capacity, one accused of being corrupt at home and a suspect ally in neighboring Afghanistan. Yet the U.S. government and others must step up the pace and scale of help to Pakistan. Individual donors too must open their wallets, as they did after Haiti’s earthquake and the South Asian tsunami, if not directly to the Pakistani government, then to trusted private groups working there.
The United States knows how to do disaster relief, and undoubtedly this is an opportunity to win Pakistani friends. Yet far more is at stake than the image of the U.S. government or, indeed, of the West. The threat of starvation and disease is great and nuclear-armed Pakistan’s elected government is weak, challenged by radical Islamic insurgents. The country’s agricultural economy is devastated. An insufficient response to the disaster is likely to fuel public anger and political upheaval. Sending aid thus is not only the right thing to do on humanitarian grounds, it’s the smart response in a contested region. The skillful use of U.S. aid will bolster Pakistan’s ability to help its people, saving lives while stabilizing the government. All of which is not only in Pakistan’s interest, but ours.