08/20/2010 02:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

More Than Three Million Children Imperiled in Pakistan

A colossal tragedy is taking shape in Pakistan, and we have the power to save those in its path. One fifth of the country is now underwater, creating a humanitarian crisis that is endangering the lives of 3.5 million children. That's as many children as there are people in the state of Connecticut. This is the biggest natural disaster in living memory in Pakistan, and it is growing more dire every day. What's worse -- a funding shortfall is severely hampering emergency response efforts.

It is unbearable to think that millions of children are in immediate danger -- not from the flood waters -- but from a lack of safe, clean drinking water, food, and shelter. The most basic supplies -- medicines, nutrition supplements, tents, water purification tablets -- are desperately needed. If we do not get more of these supplies on the ground very quickly, malnutrition and lethal diseases could spread and the toll of this calamity could become far, far worse.

Americans are a very generous people. After the earthquake in Haiti, the outpouring of donations and compassion from this country was immediate and immense. And as I wrote in an earlier post, the support from Americans has made a remarkable difference in Haiti. Because help was provided so fast, UNICEF and its partners were able to avert a secondary wave of disaster in the form of disease outbreaks and malnutrition.

But now, this secondary disaster threat is looming in Pakistan. While the initial death toll is fortunately relatively low -- about 1,600 lives have been lost -- the sheer number of people in need of assistance is staggering. More than 15 million people have been affected in total, the majority of them women and children. Many are the poorest of the poor -- families who struggled daily for survival before the floods. Uprooted from their homes, they face an extremely precarious situation. Instances of lethal waterborne diseases like cholera are already being reported, and the threat of malaria is widely feared. And in many flooded regions, acute respiratory infections and malnutrition are already dangerously high, with very few, if any, health facilities in operation to treat them. The World Health Organization is estimating that 1.5 million new cases of diarrheal diseases could occur within the next three months. For those displaced by the floods -- who have little access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation -- these diseases can spread quickly and can be swift and lethal. Young children are the most vulnerable.

In the wake of any emergency, it is critical to extend an immediate lifeline of aid to children and families. It is a fight against time, and every hour counts. UNICEF is supporting vaccination efforts and mobile health teams, and has already been able to reach more than a million people with clean water, medical supplies, supplementary food, and family hygiene kits. But this is just a fraction of those who need help. We must reach millions more to avert further catastrophe -- but UNICEF and other organizations can't do it unless we receive more funding.

The children of Pakistan need our help now, and they will need it for months to come. They will need medicine, immunizations, health care, shelter, food and clean water. They will also need protection from child traffickers and others who seek to exploit children in chaotic situations. These boys and girls have lost so much in the rising waters. We have an obligation to make sure they do not lose any more.