Ban Ki Moon’s statement at the General Assembly on the 19th August 2010, one that suggested that the Pakistan flooding has been the disaster of the century, has been met with derision, well at least from some people. Rony Brauman, ex-president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and one of its first members, has stated that the Secretary-General’s comments are more to do with managing his re-election than showing a true picture of the flood.
Brauman uses the numbers of the disaster to back up his argument: “1,500 deaths, 750,000 homes destroyed” and according to the UN, 20 million now affected, up from the 14 million of a week earlier. In fact this increase in numbers affected allowed the UN to add Cyclone Nargis to the list of other disasters that, combined, would not equal the affects of the flooding. This disaster is now, according to Moon, “more than the entire population hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake, Cyclone Nargis and the earthquake in Haiti — combined.”
The language and what lies behind this debate is important and is not a periphery to the debate on how much money should go to Pakistan; rather it is absolutely central to this discussion and probably reveals just how weak are the tools we have to use.
Brauman’s argument is that the numbers simply don’t show this flooding to be as catastrophic as it is suggested. Yet this needs a little examination beyond the bald statement.
Deaths: Whilst any death is absolutely regrettable, 1,500 for a natural disaster is not at all astonishing, and as Brauman points out it is far less than the 73,338 reported by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) for the Kashmir earthquake of 2005. It is also much, much less than the more than 220,000 than died after both the Tsunami and Haiti earthquake. However, is that the end of the comparison? It shouldn’t be. On the one hand people who are dead do not unfortunately need any particular support beyond being buried as soon as possible to avoid the spread of disease. They don’t need water, food, shelter and healthcare; a crude comparison between disasters or an estimate of need after cannot rely solely on deaths.
Affected: This is where we find the big numbers; the 20 million affected by the Pakistan flooding is so much more than all those other disasters. ‘Affected’ is a vague word and means a lot to many people. CRED uses this term to mean “those in need of immediate assistance” which sounds more helpful than it is, for immediate assistance could mean many things. It could mean a family who have lost everything, all their crops and their home, their main income-earner, as well as their community assets; it could also mean those who have lost access to a market or perhaps those who have been evacuated just in case, soon to return to undamaged assets. It is perhaps not surprising that the UN Secretary General used the words “more than the entire population hit by…”. The word ‘hit’ replaced the previously used ‘affected’ and has just enough strength to make it count and just enough weakness to enable multiple interpretations.
Homes destroyed: Perhaps this can help more. Of course different disasters affect communities in different ways. A flood may not immediately devastate in the same way as an earthquake and it may not kill because of that. However, families may still have lost their homes, their cattle and crops, and their schools, clinics and roads, much like an earthquake. Where those families may differ is perhaps in how the earthquake, through the many deaths, may have devastated family units themselves, taking away breadwinners, carers, children and parents. So whilst the flooding may have been incredibly damaging on land and assets, its relatively slow damage has largely left families somewhat intact.
The destruction of homes tells us a minimum of how many people are displaced, probably needing so many things beyond the shelter itself, since the displacement undoubtedly would have meant the loss of all those other things indicated above. It also tells us how many homes may need to be rebuilt in the future. It’s not perfect and there are significant caveats but at least the destruction of individual housing units does give some indication of both quantity and scale of need, something that both death and affected do not.
The numbers rarely speak for themselves, however……
After Cyclone Sidr there were 539,744 houses completely destroyed and 885,280 partially damaged. No one suggested that it was the disaster of the century or anything like that. Was it because actually it was not that serious? Was it because the government did not make a formal appeal for assistance? Was it because Bangladesh is not a global priority? Was it because the secretary-general did not visit and the former head of MSF did not write?