Saturday, August 07, 2010

Guest Voices: Pakistan: Is Enormous Suffering Being Overlooked?

Continuing our series of guest posts from Concern Worldwide, a firsthand account of the flooding in Pakistan. This post is written by Mubashir Ahmed, who is Assistant Country Director for Concern Worldwide's programs in Pakistan The non-profit charity Concern Worldwide works with poor people in the under-developed world to help them survive poverty and hunger.

It is monsoon season in Pakistan: rain is not unusual this time of year. But starting on Friday of last week, the Concern team and I watched with literal horror as unprecedented levels of extremely heavy, sustained rain poured down in the mountainous areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK) and other areas—triggering the worst floods ever recorded in Pakistan.

Rivers burst their banks and flooded crops, homes, and roads with frightening speed, in many areas entirely communities. Roads and bridges have been cut off—and many villages in KPK are unreachable, particularly in Swat and Charsadda Districts.

This is the third large-scale emergency I have responded to in Pakistan in the past 5 years. In 2005, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake rocked KPK Province (then known as North West Frontier Province), levelling entire communities and cities, causing 75,000 deaths and massive destruction. In 2009, active conflict between government forces and insurgent groups forced millions to flee the same province, seeking refuge in neighbouring Mardan District.

Both of those crises were widely covered by the media: this disaster seems barely to have registered, which is hard to fathom considering the scale of the disaster. Whereas the earthquake triggered a rapid, worldwide response and an outpouring of media attention and aid, the current crisis made a few headlines earlier this week but has since dropped largely of the radar. The people are desperate.

An area the size of England has been devastated. By today’s count, 1,600 have died, more than 263,000 homes have been destroyed and at least 4 million are affected by a disaster that, in terms of hardship and damage, threatens to overshadow the impact and hardship of the 2005 earthquake. In terms of infrastructure, roads and bridges, 50 years of investment and progress has been wiped out overnight. For countless communities, livelihood opportunities—including vital access to basic services (hospitals, schools) and markets—will be severely hampered for months if not years to come.

Concern has field offices and programs in the two worst-affected provinces: KPK and Punjab. I am in Islamabad, coordinating our emergency response with our team of 50-plus staff and local partners. Our local relationships, built up since we began working in Pakistan 2001, are allowing us to be among the first responders as we are well known and trusted in our areas of operation.

I am in hourly contact with personnel in Swat and Charsadda Districts and other hard-hit areas. I can tell you that this emergency is major—and it requires large-scale humanitarian intervention to prevent suffering, if not loss of life, on an enormous scale. And that intervention will hinge on significant media attention to keep the public at large interested and motivated.

We have done assessments in three of the worst-hit areas, starting with Charsadda district in KPK. Rivers have burst out of their banks and completely destroying everything around, including homes, standing crops of sugar cane, maize, and vegetables. Between 85 percent and 90 percent of houses were damaged by the floods.

In KPK alone death toll stands at 800, with more than 800 injured and 155,293 houses damaged. In Charsadda 34,657 houses have been damaged. Made of mud, these structures simply quickly dissolved and collapsed, forcing inhabitants to flee without any of their possessions.

Many, especially children, are still missing, because of the incredible speed of the flooding. Survivors were rescued by the army in helicopters and boats and in some cases found refuge in still-intact government buildings, such as schools on higher ground. But they arrived there with literally nothing and especially women and children are very vulnerable.

Now that the water has receded in some of the areas the access has improved, Concern has moved in with support, with our staff working around the clock.
We have supplies for 1,200 families—including plastic sheets for shelter, hygiene kits, blankets, mosquito nets, jerry cans and debris removal kits – that we are currently distributing. We are in the process of procuring more vital goods.

Now that the water has begun to recede in some places we are providing water in small tanks on small pickup trucks, as big tankers cannot go in yet as there has been huge mud built up in standing waters.

But there are still areas that are inaccessible, especially in Swat, where communities prior to the floods were suffering from chronic internal conflict and were already vulnerable. More than 50 percent of this district is not yet accessible. It is feared that hundreds of villages have been razed to the ground and that the area’s topography has been permanently altered. And even when the water begins to recede, standing water can lead to problems like water borne diseases, scabies and malaria.

With a special eye on the needs of women and children, Concern has begun deploying mobile medical clinics that offer gender-specific services. Accommodating the needs of women—also when it comes to latrine and other hygienic facilities—is crucial as they are barred from non-female facilities by local cultural customs. Women face indignity and even physical danger as they must meet their physical needs in public places or must travel long distances to fetch water.

It is hard to exaggerate the dangers of a potentially devastating impact on the lives of millions of Pakistanis. The world must respond quickly and substantially.

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