As a journalist who covered last year's Asian tsunami, I never thought I could feel anything like nostalgia for that terrible event. But that was before I saw what the earthquake had done to the Allai Valley in Pakistan.
A ruggedly beautiful place of terraced farm fields and stream-laced forests, the valley is -- or was -- home to an estimated 200,000 people, more than half of whom are thought to have lost their dwellings in the massive earthquake that devastated northern Pakistan on Oct. 8. By the time I landed on one of its upper slopes in a Pakistani army helicopter three weeks later, landslides still blocked most roads into the valley, and many survivors had yet to receive any help.
At the ruined village where I spent an afternoon, families were living in crude shelters made from empty cement bags and salvaged timbers. That night, I camped nearby with a handful of soldiers who had taken over the grounds of a wrecked medical clinic. As I lay shivering on the hard earth, too cold to sleep and cursing myself for not having brought a better sleeping bag, I could not imagine how the villagers would cope with the imminent arrival of winter and its heavy snows.
Soon we are likely to know. In the aftermath of the earthquake, which killed at least 73,000 people and left an estimated 3 million without homes, United Nations officials have warned that the death toll could rise sharply from hunger, disease and exposure. Logistics and harsh weather make the earthquake an even bigger humanitarian challenge than the tsunami, say the officials, who have chided foreign donors for not reacting with the same urgency and largess.
Even allowing for a degree of hype about the current crisis, it is hard for anyone who has witnessed both relief operations to argue with their basic point: The world has been stingier in its response to the earthquake than in its response to the tsunami.
A comparison of the global response to the two disasters shows how decisions by donors -- governments, corporations and individuals -- are often shaped more by emotion and timing than by hard-headed appraisals of need.
The tsunami, to be sure, was breathtaking in its scope and destructiveness. Triggered by an undersea earthquake near Sumatra, it ravaged coastal communities on the rim of the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to East Africa, killing more than 200,000 people in 13 countries. On the island nation of Sri Lanka, my vantage point on the disaster, more than 30,000 people, out of a population of 20 million, died.
I will never forget the sight of an estuary near the eastern city of Batticaloa that was lit one evening for miles by fires burning along its banks. It took me a moment to realize that what was burning was corpses that had been doused with gasoline and set alight to prevent disease. The emotional trauma suffered by millions of survivors in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, to say nothing of the physical damage, will linger for years.
But if the scale of the disaster was overwhelming, so, too, was the generosity of the global response. A U.N. emergency appeal to donor governments brought in 80 percent of the $977 million target in three weeks. By contrast, three weeks after the earthquake, the U.N. had managed to raise just 20 percent of the $550 million it was seeking. The humanitarian relief operation that followed the tsunami was the largest in history, involving military forces from 40 countries.
The private sector was similarly big-hearted. In the United States, the tsunami sparked what by some reckonings was the greatest outpouring of charity ever mustered in response to a foreign disaster, from Hollywood celebrities writing million-dollar checks to schoolchildren "adopting" shattered villages in countries they had barely heard of. One aid group, Doctors Without Borders, was so swamped with donations in the first week after the disaster that it took the unprecedented step of asking people not to send any more money for tsunami relief.
Aid groups working in the earthquake zone do not have that problem. The New York office of Action Against Hunger, for example, had received just $42,000 in earthquake donations within three weeks of the disaster, compared with $475,000 in the same period after the tsunami, according to spokesman John Sauer.
Combined with a bottleneck in the global supply of winterized tents, the shortfall in resources is forcing aid workers to make painful choices about who gets shelter and who doesn't, according to Kevin Hartigan, South Asia regional director for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services. "We are not able to serve every family," he said. "You didn't have to do any of that triage in Sri Lanka."
Aid officials have cited a number of reasons for the discrepancy: The tsunami came early in the budget year for most governments, when they still had money to spend; it was captured on tourist videotapes that were replayed endlessly on television screens around the world; it caught people in a charitable mood because it struck on the day after Christmas; and it killed several thousand Western tourists, whose loss invested many Europeans and Americans with a sense of personal connection to the disaster.
(One of them was Oprah Winfrey, whose Angel Network donated $1 million to recovery efforts in the Sri Lankan resort town where Nate Berkus, an interior decorator and frequent guest on Winfrey's show, had been vacationing with a friend; Berkus survived but his friend was killed.)
As a fund-raising vehicle, the earthquake offered none of those advantages. And in the United States, at least, it came at a time of acute disaster fatigue stemming from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Yet the tsunami was in some ways the more manageable of the two catastrophes. In part, that is because it caused relatively few injuries -- a bit like a plane crash, it was a highly lethal event that either killed you or left you unscathed. Put another way, the tsunami injured roughly one person for every two who died -- a reversal of the usual pattern in natural disasters, according to Hartigan. The earthquake, by contrast, left tens of thousands with grievous injuries that in many cases have been compounded by delays in treatment, leading to countless amputations of gangrenous limbs.
Those delays stem from the remoteness of the earthquake zone, which covers a vast mountainous swath in Kashmir and adjacent parts of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Although the Pakistani army is making progress in opening roads, some villages and smaller settlements are still cut off by landslides and can be reached only on foot or by helicopter flights that will soon be curtailed by bad weather.
The coastal strips affected by the tsunami in most cases could be reached easily by road or sea. Himalayan snows were no threat. The relatively benign working conditions, and the abundance of aid, help explain why UNICEF reported earlier this year that not a single child is known to have died from hunger or disease linked to the tsunami. They also help explain the heavy emphasis on "psychosocial" programs such as counseling for traumatized survivors -- at this point an almost unimaginable luxury in Pakistan, where the emphasis is on keeping people alive.
For many of the people who earn their living in disaster zones, the tsunami operation was an anomaly, an embarrassment of riches that at times produced an atmosphere bordering on the frivolous. Particularly in Sri Lanka, with its lush tea plantations and palm-lined beaches, aid workers used to roughing it in the African bush could not help but marvel at their frontline quarters in boutique hotels and comfortable guesthouses, many of which were far enough inland to have escaped damage. (This was not the case, I understand, in the devastated Indonesian city of Banda Aceh, where the living conditions were said to be dismal for aid workers and survivors alike.)
One official with a nongovernmental group told me that the incongruous nature of the operation came home to him a few nights after the disaster in the hard-hit Sri Lankan city of Galle. A veteran of natural disasters and war zones around the world, he was standing in the buffet line of a five-star hotel when a French aid worker of his acquaintance sidled up to him and murmured, almost guiltily, "Try the sushi."
In a similar vein, the same official recalled, the country was awash in so much foreign help that he sometimes found himself apologetically turning down offers by the U.S. military to carry relief supplies by helicopter -- something that has been unthinkable in Pakistan, where helicopters are in short supply.
The saturation publicity that attended the tsunami, and the relative ease of access, also lured thousands of untrained volunteers to Sri Lanka and elsewhere to lend a hand with rubble-clearing and other relief work. Though disparaged as "tsunami tourists" by some professional aid workers, many of these amateurs made important contributions to the relief effort, in part because they were able to short-cut government rules and regulations that often seemed to tie larger organizations in knots.
They certainly lent a colorful aspect to the disaster zone. At a small restaurant near Arugam Bay in January, I met a muscular Briton whose bare upper torso was covered in tattoos and knife scars. Grabbing a piece of chicken off my plate and stuffing it into his mouth, he told me he was a construction worker who had been passing the winter in the Indian beach resort of Goa and, more or less on a whim, traveled to Sri Lanka after the tsunami to help out. When I asked if he had a background that prepared him for aid work, he replied with a deranged grin, "I have a history of violence." A few days later I saw him digging a well.
For all the disadvantages in Pakistan, a secondary wave of death from disease and hypothermia is not inevitable. U.N. officials have an institutional interest in painting the earthquake in the darkest hues possible, both to drum up badly needed support and also to buttress their case for a permanent global relief fund that would alleviate the need for ad hoc appeals. Many earthquake survivors above the snow line, when faced with the choice between freezing to death or walking to relief camps at lower elevations, will surely choose the latter.
Nor is it fair to suggest, as Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, recently did, that the world has turned its back on the earthquake. At this writing, his country was receiving help from more than 50 nations, including the United States, which has committed $156 million to the relief effort and diverted helicopters from Afghanistan to assist. NATO is airlifting troops and supplies.
But that is not the same as saying that Pakistan has all the help it needs. Just ask the people in the Allai Valley.
John Lancaster is The Post's New Delhi-based correspondent for South Asia.