Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Guest Voices: The Human Cost of Pakistan’s Disaster

Concern Worldwide continues to report from Pakistan as the people fight for their lives following the widespread flooding. Mubashir Ahmed, Assistant Country Director for Concern, visited a school that has turned into a distribution center.

Single mother of three Mina Gul was working as a maid before the floodwaters raged through her village of Sanamgari in the Charsadda district of Pakistan’s northwest. She was thankful, she told me, that the waters came in the night because otherwise she may not have been with her family to take them to safety.

Having scrambled to a high road near their home, she and her three sons watched in horror as the waters inundated her village until not even one house was left standing. Her eldest, Mahanoor, aged eight, recalled to me how he was moved to terror by the deafening sounds of houses collapsing in every direction around them.

I visited the local school that he and his brothers attend which has been repurposed as a Concern distribution point since day two of this disaster. So far, in this district, Concern has distributed basic household items and hygiene kits to 19,880 people. Mina is just one of a number of the extremely poor people that we are targeting.

She and others tell us that so far nobody but Concern has come here to help. Certainly I saw little sign of other assistance. Such is the scale of this calamity, the Government capacity is simply not able to cope, and KPK provincial authorities have been making regular appeals for more aid.

With meagre earnings of just $35 a month, her job as a maid has never allowed Mina to provide much for her children, but when all three of them fell ill with diarrhea, scabies and fever, she tells me that she grew desperate. Not long after her youngest, Akhtar Ali aged 5, was hospitalized in Peshawar for three days, she went to her employers to beg for help. And when they refused, she abandoned her job to care for her children full time.

Now she and her three sons live in the overcrowded two-bedroom home of her father-in-law, Faiz Mohammed. At night, they share the floor with 13 other family members. Mina is hopeful that she will find a new job, but so far the signs are not good. Faiz, a farm labourer, says he has also been out of work since the floods came. Not surprising, considering that the water completely submerged this land-dependent rural community drowning 70 percent of the livestock.

Sadly, Mina Gul’s case isn’t isolated. I met with several other people at the school, each one with their own story of devastation to tell. There was Imran Ullah (21), whose house was destroyed and was now living with 17 family members in one small house; Mohammad Jamil (35), a police officer, now volunteering with us at the school and sheltering eight family members in his home; Hasan Ferozshah (8), who had not received treatment for a serious eye infection that he developed after the floods; Nishtabahan (65), who was living with four of her sons, their wives and nine children and whose grandchildren were suffering from scabies and rashes; Shaqila Arshad (60) whose 20-member family were now living in tents; and Khushbna Bibi (70) whose two room house collapsed and who was now living with her children in a graveyard-turned-campsite along with 70 other families. The stories are endless and they are echoed across Pakistan for the estimated 20 million people who have been affected by this disaster.

For now, Concern is working with community partners to ensure there is access to clean water, daily household items and medical camps for the sick. More than 2 million people in this province of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa (KPK) have been directly affected by the flooding. Concern’s partners estimate that at least 50,000 houses were completely destroyed and tens of thousands more were damaged. The immediate short-term needs are great and already we are in a race against time to rehabilitate water supply schemes to stem further outbreaks of disease.

But in the longer term, the support must pivot around the redevelopment of infrastructure so that communities like this one can regain a foothold on their livelihoods. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that approximately 500,000 pounds of wheat stock was washed away in Pakistan. Couple that with the fact that the main food source for the rural poor is wheat-based flat bread, and the true impact of this catastrophe becomes apparent.

The people of Pakistan are perilously close to an unimaginable food crisis. The mammoth 20 million affected and the lack of funding has meant that the emergency response has had to spread itself wide and thin. Water, sanitation and hygiene schemes will be essential in the coming months to prevent people, especially children, from dying from preventable waterborne diseases. But in the longer term, leveling and reclaiming land, rebuilding infrastructure and providing seed—necessary for the upcoming planting season—and livestock support will make the difference in minimizing the suffering which has already tested and plagued millions of families since the end of July.

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