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PAKISTAN: Devastating Floods Fail To Move Media

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Aug 2 2007 (IPS) - "Media is not interested in human suffering where the process of death is slow," lashes out Sadiqa Salahuddin, director of the Indus Resource Centre, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), working in the flood-affected area of Sindh, in Pakistan.

"Bomb blasts and suicide bombings keep the media riveted. Instant images of blood and gore, make for headline news; stories of the poor don&#39t have that effect," she says blaming them for neglecting their job to highlight the issue of the recent floods.

Khawer Khan, a reporter from a private TV channel, Dawn News, who covered the floods two days after a tropical cyclone, Yemyin, struck southwest Pakistan in the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh on Jun. 23, ruefully admits: "The country&#39s political climate seems to be very distracting at the moment" with the result the natural calamity "didn&#39t get the due coverage".

"I didn&#39t bump into any journalists when I first reported about the devastation in Jhal Magsi (one of the worst affected districts in Balochistan), which was completely inundated. No relief had reached even after I left the area and called a few days later," says Khan.

The state-run National Disaster Management Authority&#39s (NDMA) disaster reduction advisor, Zubair Murshid, echoes similar views. "The Lal Masjid episode (on Jul. 10 and 11, troops were used to flush out pro-Taliban militants from the mosque in Islamabad) which involved 500 people consumed all media attention."

"And, the 30,000 flood victims of Jhal Magsi, around the same time, who needed immediate evacuation and were equally at risk of imminent death, remained unreported," he says. News of the flood havoc did not make it to the headlines of a single national newspaper, he adds.

The NDMA puts the death toll at roughly 319, with nearly 2.5 million people affected and 367,394 displaced.

"In July, the media found enough sensational stuff: the All Parties Conference, hosted by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the Lal Masjid siege, as well as the suicide bombings that followed. The floods had no chance of making it to the top slot," comments Harris Khalique, director Strengthening Participatory Organisation, another NGO working in both the flood-affected provinces.

The lacklustre media reporting has meant that national and international aid organisations have not responded to the flood tragedy, relief workers lament. "It has caused difficulty in our fund-raising," admits Salahuddin. "We needed urgent supply of medicines, but those sitting in Karachi didn&#39t know the scale of the devastation and were not mobilised enough to support us."

According to Khalique, "the absence of consistent reporting by the national media" in turn failed to prod the international media to report. "Those flash appeals which rely a great deal on media projection were unable to muster adequate support from donors," he says.

An appeal (three weeks late) issued by the UN for 38 million dollars in relief aid, elicited promises that amounted to just 14 percent, a large chunk of which was replenished by the UN&#39s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

In 2005, when a quake measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale devastated parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the remotest villages were teeming with reporters for months. Pakistan witnessed an unprecedented philanthropic response, both nationally and internationally.

"Loss of life is always &#39big&#39 for the media. As opposed to that, loss of livelihood and suffering does not add up to much sensation," explains Khalique.

A piqued Salahuddin points out that while the loss of life caused by the two catastrophes are on vastly different scales, one cannot undermine the seriousness of the long time suffering of those affected by the flood.

"There is no drinking water for these people and they use the same stagnant and insect-infested water for washing and drinking. The rise in cases of diarrhoea and skin rashes is almost epidemic," she observes. According to UNICEF, over a million children are at risk of infectious diseases in flood-affected provinces.

"What&#39s unfortunate (about the media) is that loss of livelihood (in the floods) is a poor man&#39s issue, and doesn&#39t make for enough sensational news. For most, the poor are already suffering and there is nothing news worthy here," Salahuddin says.

Masood Ahmed Lohar, national coordinator for UNDP&#39s Small Grants Programme, blames the slow relief work in flood-affected areas to their remoteness. "During the earthquake coverage, Kashmir had a good road network. The devastation of the beautiful valleys added further drama to the tragedy. In Sindh and Balochistan, all there is to see is desert," he said.

The floods have affected the rich and poor very differently, according to Salahuddin. "It has spared the lands of most feudal land owners as water was intentionally diverted through breaches made in the embankments to protect their standing crops from being annihilated," she claims.

Thousands of flood victims are still in need of relief while the government has declared the relief phase to be over by Jul. 31. "The government reporting depicts a rather positive picture that there are no big relief needs any longer and that it should focus on recovery," observes Kilian Kleinschmidt, assistant representative, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

He would like to see the government accept foreign assistance. "The reluctance of the government to allow aid agencies to help" is "affecting donor readiness to provide funding", he concludes.

According to Kleinschmidt, the UNHCR had plans to assist 150,000 persons, provided that additional funding would be made available (total needed 2.7 million dollars). "So far we have received only US $623,000 through the UN central emergency fund which allowed us to distribute most of the items we had in stock, primarily plastic sheets and tents." However, they had to stop midway after assisting only 20,000.

Meanwhile, the NDMA has extended the relief phase for another week. Simultaneously, "the early recovery stage will be initiated as people have begun to move back to their homes," according to Murshed. Initiating alternative income generation is crucial since the floods have inundated crops and killed livestock, he explains.

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