Saturday, August 14, 2010

Guest Voices: Pakistan floods: pulling people back from the brink

Here is the next post in our series from Concern Worldwide. Mubashir Ahmed is Assistant Country Director for Concern Worldwide's programs in Pakistan. Ahmed writes about reaching flood survivors in the hardest hit areas. Concern Worldwide works with poor people in the under-developed world to help them survive poverty and hunger.

Good news is rare as Pakistan’s greatest natural disaster continues to unfold before our eyes. But after nearly two weeks of trying, we have finally reached desperate flood victims in two remote districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) Province, Kohistan and Shangla. These were among the worst hit in the disaster but the rains and flooded roads held us back, and even the government couldn’t get there at first. The good news is now that we are there we can began to bring in food and relief items that will literally save lives – these people are on the brink.

Within Kohistan and Shangla, the hardest hit areas are accessible only by foot, so after trekking in, our local partners have been conducting rapid assessments in the districts. Information is coming out only slowly as local phone service and mobile networks are down; aid workers have to walk back to the nearest road, get into cars and travel considerable distances to find working phones in order to report in.
In the last two days, we finally received such a call from a partner who had reached Kohistan, one of the most remote and poorest districts in Pakistan. Food is the most urgent need – any that was available has been consumed in the last two weeks, and we are worried about acute food shortage and resultant malnutrition among women and children there. The army and Red Cross have been able to do some food distributions but much more is needed. The aid effort is now reaching to the most of affected parts in Swat district except for a few areas, which are still cut off, and the needs are staggering.

Our distributions have started in Swat in the last few days, and supplies we are procuring at the moment will be dispatched to Kohistan and Shangla within the next two days. Shangla is effectively still a conflict zone, but our local partner on the ground is doing a remarkable job caring for victims while managing to operate effectively. These partnerships with local NGOs, built up over nearly a decade, are proving invaluable – since they are based in the affected areas, they can mobilize within 24 hours.

But as waters have receded in KPK, we can begin focusing on recovery efforts in the region. We can attack the massive task of clearing debris. At their peak, waters reached the roof level of homes, leaving behind 2 or 3 foot of polluted silt that has to be removed urgently. We are giving families debris kits, which include shovels, so they can begin clearing their homes and streets on their own power.

Our medical camps, water and sanitation work and hygiene kit distributions are helping to ensure the health and safety of women and children, who are the most vulnerable in times of disaster. They are often responsible for families’ water supply – a difficult to impossible chore in these conditions – so bringing in water by tankers and repairing hand pumps makes their lives a little easier. We are arranging medical camps in the most remote areas—they would otherwise be unable to receive treatment for injuries or illness.

In a few weeks we will also need to start focusing on the recovery of livelihoods and water/sanitation facilities to normalize the lives in the affected areas. Once the relief phase is over we will have to transition immediately to recovery and rehabilitation, especially of infrastructure and livelihoods/agriculture/crops. Concern has a lot of experience in this area, but considering the vast damage to infrastructure and livelihoods/agriculture/crops, the task at hand will be enormous
Our latest challenge involves relief efforts in the provinces south of KPK, Sindh and Punjab, as the raging waters are moving south. Eight districts in each of the provinces are in dire straits. We are doing our utmost to respond there as countless families are left simply with nothing. Relief efforts focus on food, water, shelter, emergency medical assistance, and household goods. We have started with the distribution of 400 plastics sheets and other non-food items. At this writing, food for 1,000 families is heading for South Punjab.

It will be some time before the aid community will know the full extent of damages in the southern provinces. We have to wait for the waters to recede. Meanwhile, the army is using boats and helicopters for evacuations and rescue operations.
Our teams at the country office and in the field offices as well as our local partners’ teams in the field deserve special praise. At Concern headquarters in Islamabad, all of us work to close to midnight every day. In the field, our colleagues manage to make progress in the face of huge obstacles. Emergencies always test your endurance, and that is what we are seeing from the team here. What’s more, Ramadan has begun. That means you stop eating/drinking from 4 in the morning and you don’t eat/drink until 7 at night, going an entire long day without food or drink. The fast began yesterday and staff is coping. It’s late in the day, but they are still hard at work at the office and in the field!

Many of us get frustrated at the fact that we cannot do more and do it faster and reach still more people. Every day brings bad news about still more victims struck by this disaster and more large swaths of land destroyed. But we are truly doing what given our capacity and resources. Again, much credit goes to local partners who are able to mobilize & kick start operations within days with the help of one or two Concern staff. These partners are our arms and legs on a daily basis.

For the moment, we are targeting support for 10,000 families, or 80,000 people across KPK and Punjab. These numbers will likely grow in the coming days as we receive assessments from further south in Sindh. The task before us is immense. We want to do more, we must do more, but we can do only as much as our resources allow. The just announced UN appeal, and reports that donations picking up steam in Europe and North America —this is welcome ‘good news’ and it’s keeping our staff going.

Mubashid Ahmer is assistant country director for Concern Worldwide in Pakistan

No comments: