August 17, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 14Comment

Flooding in Pakistan has killed 1,600 and is affecting an estimated 20 million people. Six million lack access to food, shelter, and water. The report of a single confirmed cholera case (in the Swat valley) is generating some headlines, but the important point is that a lack of clean water makes the spread of any diarrheal disease far more likely.

UNICEF warns that “more than 3 million children are at high risk of deadly water-borne diseases in Pakistan,” and cites a WHO projection of up to 1.5 million cases of diarrheal diseases that could occur over the next three months. These aren’t just troublesome cases of intestinal discomfort; diarrhea can be deadly, especially for children. Each year, 1.4 million children die from diarrheal diseases, and 860,000 children perishing directly or indirectly from malnutrition arising from repeated diarrhea or intestinal nematodes. Diarrheal disease can be treated with oral rehydration solutions, but distribution of such items – as well as food, water, and other basics – is a challenge when so many roads are washed out.

After visiting flood-ravaged areas of Pakistan, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “In the past I have visited the scenes of many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this.”

From his remarks, and from the numbers in the news accounts, this sounds like a major disaster. But why does it seem like the response is so anemic, especially when compared to the outpouring of support that followed the January earthquake in Haiti? (That earthquake claimed far more lives than the floods have so far, but the floods have left far more people homeless and hungry.)

Based on my entirely subjective assessment, it seems like Pakistan’s flooding is getting far less media coverage than Haiti’s earthquake, and people don’t seem to be bringing it up in conversation. I myself haven’t been thinking about it much, and wasn’t until today, after I decided to pull up some news stories about it, that I’ve finally gotten around to making a donation to a relief organization. My memory of the Haiti earthquake is that I spent a lot more time thinking about it, and made my first donation within a couple of days after the quake. It seemed like people kept referring to it, too, either to talk about a particularly moving news story they’d seen, or just as a reminder that whatever complaints we might be dealing with aren’t nearly as bad as what people elsewhere in the world are suffering.

The UN has requested $459 million for emergency relief and has received or gotten commitments for 35% of that. The majority of that has come from the US and UK governments, reports Nathaniel Gronewold of Greenwire. Aid agencies report that responses from individual US donors have been slow, though.

On the list of possible factors behind the lag in individual US donations, Gronewold starts with “public opinion of Pakistan” and cites a June CNN poll showing “78 percent of Americans hold mostly unfavorable views of Pakistan.” I’d like to think people can hold an unfavorable opinion of a country but still be willing to help its citizens get food and water after a natural disaster; maybe when it comes to donations, though, decisions aren’t entirely rational.

I expect the slow pace of donations is mostly a function of less media coverage (compared to the Haiti earthquake). It’s not like the major news organizations are failing to cover Pakistan’s disaster at all, but so far I don’t think I’ve seen many stories about individual families’ struggles – and those are the pieces that spur donations. Maybe reporters are on vacation, or news organizations can’t afford to send flocks of reporters to disaster areas twice in one year. Or, maybe Russia’s peat fires and China’s landslides (also terrible disasters worthy of attention) are resulting in media attention being spread more thinly than it otherwise would be. (And some news organizations are focusing their resources on a local zoning decision in lower Manhattan.)

I also suspect the relatively gradual nature of Pakistan’s flooding makes it harder for news organizations and individuals to grasp the severity of the impact. The situation didn’t go from normal to “20 million people homeless” in a single day. Plus, slowly rising waters just don’t seem as terrifying as sudden major shifts in the tectonic plates.

Regardless of how much attention they’re getting from international news organizations and individual donors, the people in Pakistan are facing a catastrophe. The Washington Post has compiled a list of organizations that are accepting donations for the relief effort.

14 thoughts on “Why are Pakistan’s Floods Getting Less Attention than Haiti’s Earthquake?

  1. 1) Less media coverage.
    2) Not as “close to home”, from the USAian P.O.V.
    3) Site of current military/political unpleasantness that nobody wants to think about, connected (IMO) to
    4) a religiously-motiviated sense on the part of a regretably large chunk of the public that, A) those heathens had it coming*, and/because, B) it’s all Pakistan’s fault that the Holy War in Afghanistan has fallen flat (and Osama ben Laden is not confirmably dead or in USAian hands).

    Just my cynical 2 cents worth.

    *For comparison, I know for a fact that, here in the Buckle of the Bible Belt, many fundies thought that God was punishing the victims of the Indonesian tsunami for not being Christians; they only got what they deserved. Their voices to my own personal ears; not a What-If, not an Imaginary Story.

  2. *sigh* “Motivated”, not “motiviated”.

    The “milk of human kindness” runs thin and sour, where “the enemy” is concerned.

  3. I suspect there is a certain amount of fatigue hearing about things going bad in Pakistan. We have been handing out cash by the billions for decades there.

    Also whereas the Haitians are seen as relatively friendly and blameless victims the Pakistanis are seen as playing both sides of the Afghanistan, nuclear weapons, Kashmir issues against the middle.

    Note that Haiti hasn’t always been seen as so benign. A time back Haiti was in the news with unrest and Haitians, largely due to gangs, had major bad mojo around Florida. Had the earthquake happened at that time they might have been viewed as somewhat less deserving.

    There are also issues with reporting on such disasters. Haiti is an hour away by plane. Pakistan is a full day away. And once a reporter is on the ground Pakistan is troubled by terrorist actions, violence, and assassinations. Haiti was potentially violent but mostly peaceful, if stressed, and what violence there was was mostly focused on other Haitians.

    The end result is that getting news, and tearjerker stories, out of Pakistan is harder and the Pakistanis are prone to being seen as less deserving. I’m not saying that the differences in perception are correct, or justifiable, as points of view, but clearly the things are not equal and it clearly isn’t just an issue of geography.

  4. I was wondering about this just this morning. I’m in the US. I think all the factors above definitely come into play, with perhaps a chunk of self-interest as well; Haiti is part of our own hemisphere, and if things get really bad there — God knows they are not great even ordinarily — even more desperate people will be trying to immigrate here. Whereas in Pakistan, even if we shower them with aid, their opinion of us will not improve — we’ve been giving them aid for decades, and it has not made a dent. (Like Art, I’m not saying the Pakistanis don’t have their reasons). A Pakistan destabilized by flooding and displacement will be more dangerous to US interests, but that is a pretty abstract thing to individual donors.

    Human interest stories would definitely help.

  5. I’ve noticed this as well. I tried looking for news about it on the Foxnews site for a couple days in a row. Just yesterday I found a tiny link at the bottom of the Worldnews page. Ironicaly they have much more prominent stories featuring Pakistan on a daily basis but nary a peep about the floods.

    From my own anecdotal experience Global Warming deniers simply don’t want to hear or talk about this. I’m not referring to any possible connection (although I suspect there probably is one) but just the event itself. That and the Russia fires as well.

  6. News coverage is always a fickle beast, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it is much easier for news organizations to get from the US to Haiti than to Pakistan, particularly for the big anchor types (e.g. Anderson Cooper). It may also be perceived as a dangerous assignment by the international media for problems ongoing in the area.

    Now the people who don’t care because they don’t like Pakistanis or Muslims, well they did not like Haitians or people in New Orleans either and I don’t see that as much of a factor.

  7. The floods are far away from the US, have taken days/weeks to developed and the level of corruption is well documented. In Haiti the earthquake happened in minutes, was very close to the Eastern US and media sources. Also in Haiti donations could be made to organizations with a good track record i.e. Doctors without Borders. I am not saying that these are good reason but they exist.

  8. An earthquake or tsunami or hurricane is a discrete event: it happens, it’s over, people contribute and the survivors rebuild. With floods, on the other hand, there’s no immediate resolution. It may just keep on raining. Why contribute now when the worst may be yet to come?

  9. I did know about the floods and landslides in China, but I guess I was basically taking the amount of media coverage (I’d heard even less about China than Pakistan) as an indication of relative severity. I wonder if they’d be getting more coverage if not for the fact that Pakistan is experiencing flooding at the same time.

  10. The answer to your primary question is this:

    The world jumped reasonably quickly to help Pakistan when it suffered a horrendous earthquake, with the loss of many lives a few years ago. Unfortunately, some of the materials fell into the hands of ‘internal Islamic aid groups’ known to be associated with extremists, who were seen to take credit for providing help. The government stood by, wringing its hands; again, unfortunately, evidence of corruption among government officials handling cash relief programs surfaced later.

    This time, nations ready to pony up relief funds and materials were a bit hesitant until they were given ‘guarantees’ that aid would be delivered by the government and neutral NGOs, like the Red Cross.

    The answer to the other question, why China’s floods were met with relative indifference in comparison to Pakistan’s plight. China’s flooding was also caused by unusually heavy monsoon rains falling after a period of severe drought. China’s budget for relief is huge and area affected smaller, in comparison to the plight of Pakistan, where more than 1/5th of the land surface is moderately-to-severely affected. Worse is expected, because of the delay in flood wave propagation (for discussion, see the Highly Allocthanous blog, recent post on Pakistan floods).

    China also reported considerable internal citizen donation response to the mudslides and flooding that occurred in North-Central and South-Eastern China in the past month.

    While not mentioned, Pakistan was rocked by earthquakes in the north, suffered severe drought damage to crops before the flood and then was hit by historic floods in the past few months.

    Interestingly, China had heavy hits from earthquakes, flood and fires too. There are…suspected to be caused by related physical drivers in climate, but is beyond the scope of discussion here.

  11. Since the issue of aid and floods for Pakistan has been brought up I have been deeply grieved to see that 78% of Americans don’t consider Pakistan a friendly nation. I am a Pakistani and this percentage certainly changed my mind about our war on terrorism. though i won’t blame Americans entirely for this opinion as they don’t know about Pakistan personally. American media dominates the mind of american people and knowing the fact that only 22% of Americans actually holds a passport to visit abroad and according to unofficial survey up to 85% of Americans don’t own a passport. To know a country you don’t just go around making opinions based on Media. I am sure you must rely on media that is why when you see a suicide attack in Pakistan you just notice terrorism and not the death toll of innocent people in it. 9/11 must have been awful for you guys but we have suffered 100 times as much just because of America’s war on Terrorism. 2009 we lost 28000 people to terrorism yet the world want us to do more. I assure you that before 2001 Pakistan didn’t have single terrorism act. you can either do your research or google around.
    We made it our business to help you fight terrorism but even people like me who always supported this war are now re-thinking the decision as if we really did a right decision to Fight this war.
    Issue of Kashmir Again a blasphemy of Media. Go and visit united nation’s Resolution and if it is not enough have a referendum in Kashmir. Kashmir was always a part of Pakistan right from 1947 when the East India Company gave this decision that heavily Muslim populated areas will go with Pakistan and Heavily Non Muslim Populated areas will be with India. yet India was allowed to commit aggression against Kashmir and thanks to united nation who legalized this act.

    Just because of Wikileaks people have made opinions about Pakistan Siding with Afghan Talibans possibly ignoring the fact that this War on Terrorism cost us not just money but precious lives as well. Our Secret Services have requested on many occasions proof of such accusations yet CIA or any other Secret intelligence of the world was unable to do so.

    But I would definitely request people of different nationalities not to base their opinions on what media shows you. We are people no different than you are. We eat breath blink smell taste or live the same lives as you do. I hope I haven’t hurt anybody in any sense.

  12. Have you ever gotten into the heads of people who are wholly opposed to birth control? Read up on the Quiverfull movement. They’re the extreme, but there are mainstream conservatives who share some of their views regarding contraception, and as a voting bloc, they are pretty influential.

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