Wednesday November 29, 2023

Never saw such a scale of flood, devastation in 30 years: USAID chief

The resources for massive rebuilding are going to be very hard to mobilise given scale of global need, she says

By Azaz Syed
September 12, 2022
Samantha Power receiving the US humanitarian assistance that arrived in Pakistan. — Twitter/ File
Samantha Power receiving the US humanitarian assistance that arrived in Pakistan. — Twitter/ File

ISLAMABAD: Samantha Power, the head of United States Agency of International Development (USAID), has said that she has not seen this scale of flooding and devastation in her 30 years’ experience. She added the United States soon after the flash appeal of United Nations put forward $30 million and we immediately came and announced $20 million more aid for the flood affected areas of Pakistan.

“The resources for massive rebuilding, you know, are going to be very hard to mobilise given the scale of global need. But, of course, all of us are eager to contribute as much as we can, knowing what a difficult blowback this is going to be for the Pakistani people,” said Power while exclusively talking to this correspondent following her visit to the flood-affected areas of Pakistan, at a local hotel.

Samantha Power looked visibly disturbed apparently with her firsthand experience of watching the destruction and flood-affected people.

Following are the questions and answers between this correspondent and Samantha Power.

Q : I want to thank you for joining us. First of all, tell us that you’ve been to the front, the affected areas of Pakistan, you have also landed in Dadu, and met with the people, what kind of situation you saw and what did you find when you met the people?

Power: Well, part of the time, I felt like maybe I had entered the apocalypse. You know, it just felt as if, you look down in a helicopter, flying for two, three, four hours all around, you know, in all directions, and all you see is water. And so you, you kind of still have the reflex of thinking, when you look down and you see water, we must be over a lake or we must be over an ocean. 

And then you see, you know, the faint outline of the roof of a home popping up, or maybe there’s a tiny little island to the community that happens to be on raised land, or maybe somebody has cleared out just a little bridge area to be able to transport something back to one’s home. But it was, very, very moving. And very, very sad, just to see the scale of devastation. No, no scanning social media or looking at videos prepares you for the scale of it all, for just the breadth of the area that is covered in water. And the number of families of Pakistanis whose entire world has been destroyed in a matter of days or weeks.

Question: You met with the women and the children out there, so what was their feeling which they expressed to you?

Power: Well, many were concerned for people that they had left behind and communication was, that they felt confident that they would know if something had happened. But, of course, there have been more breaches just in the time that I’ve been on the ground, and so that vulnerability hasn’t gone away, you know, there’s still a sense of, could more water come at any moment and wash away, you know, human life, as well as livestock and crops and everything you might be able to put on the table and compounding an already tragic death toll. So, they were very focused on that. But honestly, the main emphasis was on when can we go home, you know, we have to eat and be safe, right now we are the lucky ones. They definitely – those who have actually found housing, even if it’s you know, five families in one schoolroom, which is what we saw in one of the school buildings that we visited – at least they knew, you know, there’s the Pakistani military nearby, and there’s an aid organization nearby, we can get access to food. We know that if we had stayed in our own community, we would just be fending for ourselves until this humanitarian operation is up and running. But even knowing what the conditions were like back home, and how difficult they were, I asked them, you know, where did the water have to be for you to leave? Because I know nobody wants to leave their home, anywhere in the world. And they basically said when the water got to here, that’s when we knew we had to leave. And I said, well, where does the water have to be for you to go home? And it varies, but you know, some said the water has to be to here, some said to here, some said it’s okay as long as it’s at the waist level, and we know no more is coming. And as USAID, of course, that’s understandable, but also worrying because the risk of waterborne diseases is so great. And the capacity to manage, for example, an outbreak of cholera, you know, malaria infestation, dengue, I mean, there’s so much that can go wrong. So we want to, you know, ensure that even as we scale up food and shelter and assistance for the displaced, and for those who have remained, that we are also as an international community and working with Pakistani authorities and making the right investments in preventive health, because that is probably the next phase of devastation in this crisis that risks occurring.

Question: Samantha, you have been working around the world, where USAID has operations around the world, what is your understanding? How much time could it take to, you know, go for the rehabilitation of this devastation, do you think?

Power: Well, I’m no expert on flooding or engineering. I will say that in nearly 30 years of covering conflict – initially as a journalist, and then as working as a government official – covering natural disasters and visiting them, I have never seen devastation at this speed and scale. So, I don’t know that there’s a precedent for understanding what the journey ahead looks like. And Pakistan’s own journey to recovery from 2010, back then we called those the super floods, what are we going to call these? You know, monster floods.

Question: So these are the largest floods you have ever seen?

Power: Certainly that I have ever seen. Yes. I’ve never seen a third of a country inundated or enveloped in water in this way. I mean, this is an area three times the size of Portugal, in the entire country of Portugal. This is unfathomable, really, I think for many. But to your question, I think the first question before you even get to the recovery question, and the rebuilding question is, when is the water going to recede? And there I gather that there are really different projections depending on where we’re talking about. But that’s a critical question because that will dictate when people go home, whether they are able to think about planting crops, you know, for the next season. Remember, they lost everything this season. And so those assessments, and really a kind of tailored approach, community by community, as to whether the land is capable of maintaining, you know, community life – family life – that’s going to vary a lot. And it’s going to require, you know, really specific on the ground knowledge, and that knowledge being provided to families who are themselves thinking about whether to go back. So, I think all of that has to happen as the returns of families occur. And remember, we’re still in a situation where we are supporting the Pakistanis, that they’re continuing to evacuate people. So we’re not even, probably, at the maximum displacement yet. And yet, they’re still, as soon as the waters go down again, and people are going to need to go back, which we recognise. So I think we have to keep very, very focused on that because of the health calamities other than the food crisis that is going to unfold in these areas. At the same time, the government has already commenced assessments about the rebuilding and recovery. And I think that those assessments are staggered by province, basically where the waters have receded already, we’re already starting to see teams come in and look at what is needed. And, you know, again, in the past, when flooding has occurred, there perhaps was not enough attention globally. This is true in every country, to the recognition that this was going to continue to happen. It was always, well, this is once in a century so maybe it won’t happen again, for another 100 years. I think now people have internalized the recognition that these climate shocks are going to be with us in a variety of unpredictable forms, you know, for many years and generations to come. And so that rebuilding process becomes very important to ground that in, an understanding that extreme weather events are likely to befall the same communities in the future. So, what does that mean about whether you need to construct a village in the same place that existed before? The families are likely to want that, but it may be that, you know, if there are incentives, and the families could be moved, maybe, to higher ground, and still able to access livelihoods in schools, that that is something that they will be eager to do as well knowing that if something has happened at this scale, at this time, and if some of the same ingredients are still present, then there’s the possibility of very heavy monsoon rains, as long, as well as the glaciers, and the flow of rain and water from the mountains in Pakistan’s unique topography really does create vulnerabilities that I think communities will take seriously. So this is a long answer, but to say that these assessments are going to need to be very detailed and very complex. The resources for massive rebuilding, you know, are going to be very hard to mobilize given the scale of global need. But, of course, all of us are eager to contribute as much as we can, knowing what a difficult blowback this is going to be for the Pakistani people.

Question: You announced $20 million in dollars for Pakistan, for the Pakistani people. Would you mind sharing more details where this money will be spent? And how would you spend?

Power: Yes, well, let me also put it in some context. So we have already, when the UN issued its last appeal of the $160 million dollars, we put $30 million dollars toward that. And we came very quickly out the gate also hoping to motivate other countries to contribute as well at scale. We know that is only the beginning of what the needs are likely to look like. In addition, over the course of the last week, we have worked with our Defense Department colleagues with USAID to build an air bridge, which was just launched yesterday at Sukkur Airport, in Sindh province. And we think that is extremely important, because in addition to providing ourselves financial support, for example, to the World Food Program; to the International Organization of Migration, which is going to provide shelter; to Concern to provide food and so forth, we know that it may take time for some of those organizations to scale up their work. So, we wanted to get commodities to the country as quickly as we could, and DoD is very fast, really apt at standing up an operation like that. So the Pakistanis in Sindh and Balochistan are going to be seeing sorties of shelter and food preparation materials coming in here over the course of the next days, as the UN operation scales up.

Question: How many things are involved in this?

Power: I don’t want to put a number on it beyond saying, you know, it will be more than a week of sorties. And we’re hoping to do multiple planes, you know, each day, but what we’ve allocated is enough shelter for about 300,000 people. So again, a small share of the number of people affected, but nonetheless, an important influx of commodities, that goes alongside the resources that we have done of these other international organizations providing shelter and food as well. So, then the $20 million you asked about is also going to go to these international organizations, and the area of emphasis is all an area that hasn’t seen yet a scaled up response that is sufficient, and that is Sindh and Balochistan, you know, areas that often have lacked the kind of infusion of support, let’s say, from the international community, areas where there’s an awful lot of poverty to begin with, for people who really just on the edge, you know, maybe took out some debt in order to get the seeds to plant or to get fertilizer to be able to spur their agricultural along, and now they find themselves with their crops wiped out just as they might have been about to harvest them, but still, carrying the debt that they may have carried and so the vulnerability in these two provinces is immense and of course, both are largely underwater still. So, that is where we thought, with DoD, to set up that air bridge in Sindh province, to try as well to use our resources, in this $50 million to get UN organisations to stand up there and get much more capacity out and about, you know. Just from flying over the affected areas, one didn’t see the kind of international presence, or combined national international presence, that people are really needing right now. And so we’re hoping that we can accelerate the way for that, that presence in those very, very challenged provinces, that presence to scale up significantly.

Question: So most of the money will be spent on the healthcare or on the rehabilitation or on the agriculture?

Power: I mean, it’s hard to choose, you know, and $50 million dollars, it’s on the one hand, an awful lot of money. On the other hand, tiny to the scale of need and the number of sectors one has to make a contribution to, it can get spread very thin, very quickly. For right now the emphasis is on shelter, food, these are the main needs that are being articulated by the communities that we’re engaging, and a real concern about sanitation and health. And recognizing that is likely to be the next phase of this crisis as people go home, the waters, you know, are stagnant waters. There are many parts of the affected areas that can’t be dewatered easily and so waiting for those waters to evaporate but knowing people can move home, means that these investments in sanitation, and in health response, are going to have to be critical. Then we will get to the resilience of food security, longer term investments in helping those farmers recover but for that we will need more than emergency assistance, we need longer term developments.

Question: Samantha, we’ve seen that climate change has become a new challenge for the world. And Pakistan is on the receiving end in terms of the conversion rate with other countries. What kind of assistance you are providing towards Pakistan to cope with this?

Power: Yes, we’re very aware that we are, the United States, is a major emitter and a country like Pakistan has contributed far less to this problem, by a longshot. We know that there are also Pacific islands, as well, that contribute nothing at all, you know, barely emit anything, even now, and are all submerged underwater, the member states of the United Nations that are worried that they won’t even be member states in 10 years.

And I was just in Somalia and Kenya in the last weeks and there you see those countries experiencing an absolute record setting fifth straight failed season. Nothing like that has ever happened in the history of a drought-affected area. They’ve had droughts, of course, but everywhere you look, they’re just new records being broken, being shattered. So, that is the challenge that we face collectively. President Biden, you know, after coming into office, after we had pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, you know, has really concentrated on two things. First, making sure that we bring down our emissions. And, you know, he finally was able to secure this historic piece of legislation where we will be making $400 billion dollars, almost, in investments in transitioning to renewables. But that’s just to prevent further warming, right, to try to limit the warming that we already see. And so, the other pillar of our strategy is adaptation. And he is committed to try to work with Congress, we have a very divided politics.

Question: You’re also facing the issue of populism.

Power: Yes.

Question: Populist politics over there. So do we.

Power: I was going to say we have some things in common. And polarization makes, you know, doing big things much more challenging than when people can come together and really find common ground. So, again, it’s extremely important that President Biden was able to find some common ground to get the climate programming through for us to lower our own emissions. But we need something similar to happen when it comes to making these large-scale investments in adaptation. So, we are already dramatically increasing our investments in food security resilience, we are doing more of climate smart agriculture, more to provide farmers with climate resistant and heat resistant seeds, flood resistant seeds even. And also helping farmers, again, think through what is the right next phase of their approach to agriculture, given that the whole landscape has been altered very dramatically by these extreme weather events. We also want to take advantage of the kinds of technologies and the satellite information that people can have to provide early warning and the insights that even we’re obtaining as we go in the United States for how to build infrastructure in a manner that makes it more impervious to these kinds of shocks, because all of that knowledge – but also the resources from the multilateral development banks, from donor countries, you know, to contribute to Pakistan’s effort to make itself more resilient, given its own unique vulnerabilities to climate change – all that is incredibly important.

Question: There’s one last quick comment, you’ve had years of travel around the world and in these calamities, how do you see the resilience of Pakistani nation, with this particular context that one third of the country has gone into the water, you know, they are fighting to, you know, come back.

Power: Well, I mean, I would come back to what happened in 2010. And just note the remarkable recovery that these communities made. Yes, there was a big infusion of international support but the people on the frontlines of recovering from that crisis were Pakistanis. And they stood, you stood, in solidarity with one another, you know, contributions from Pakistanis from one part of the country to those affected parts of the country. That kind of coming together – notwithstanding the political divisions, you know, the misinformation that’s out there, you know, social media and so forth – it’s that kind of solidarity that allowed Pakistan to make the kind of comeback that it did and to begin to see the kind of development gains in that flood affected areas. This is of an entirely different scale and so it’s going to require that and more. And you know, so I think the two watchwords for me out of my visit here, and what I’ve learned and seen, are solidarity, you know, ours with you, and yours with one another. We also want to mobilize the diaspora, solidarity from other countries, we need to see more of, and resilience, that ability to continue to put one foot in front of the other and try to rebuild, you know, even after you’ve gone through something unimaginable.

Question: Thank you. My point is that you have seen the capacity of Pakistani, the people, who are fighting with us. How do you see the capacity of the Pakistani government and the people who are involved in the rescue work and relief improving their ability?

Power: To withstand a crisis of this magnitude and to recover in the way that Pakistanis did after the last floods, requires a coming together. And, you know, our society in the United States is a very, very divided society. Yours has challenges as well – extreme political cleavages – the more that Pakistanis stand in solidarity with one another, that is the key ingredient to getting these communities back on track. The communities that I met with yesterday, they’re unstoppable. If they are given the smallest openings, the smallest grant, you know, some seeds to begin to plant again, some help getting rid of the water on their land, they’ll be out there planting in no time. The industry is there, the resilience, the desire to create a better future for their kids, it’s all there. But that solidarity is the critical ingredient. And I think that’s something that all countries need in the face of the very extreme challenges we face with COVID, with supply chain shocks, and inflation. And now, with this historic calamity befallen on the Pakistani people. Solidarity and resilience, and we in the United States certainly want to contribute to that.