Floodwaters Still Washing Away Lives in Pakistan

Published on
by
the Irish Times

Floodwaters Still Washing Away Lives in Pakistan

The world has moved on from the disaster, but in villages and camps the horror is still unfolding

by
Mary Fitzgerald

An aerial view of the flood affected villages and make-shift camps is seen from from UN helicopter near Sehwan town on December 3. (AFP/File/Rizwan Tabassum)

Dadu, southern Pakistan - The irony of being surrounded by water but not having enough to drink is not lost on Longkhan Solangi, the wiry septuagenarian patriarch of an extended family that includes 30 grandchildren. Sitting on a rope bed in the open air of what was once his thriving village, Longkhan gestures at the murky pools of stagnant floodwater around him, lined with green slime. Then he points to the horizon, his bony finger tracing what looks like a vast inland lake shimmering in the afternoon sun. "Look at all that water, more water than I have ever seen in my life, and yet we are looking for water every day to drink," he says bitterly.

Longkhan and the other returned residents of Reejhpur, a hamlet of 2,000 people located in Dadu, a district of Pakistan's southern Sindh province, at least have road access to their ruined homes. Dozens of other villages in the area are still cut off, accessible only by boat or helicopter. Dadu was one of the last places engulfed by the swollen Indus river as it coursed through Sindh before emptying into the Arabian Sea, and now it is one of the last to remain under water.

More than four months after the beginning of the floods that wrought havoc as they washed down along Pakistan's spine, from its mountainous north to the rich farmland of Punjab and on to Sindh, the waters have receded elsewhere, but here in Dadu's desolate plains they refuse to go away. The road to Reejhpur is surrounded on all sides by waterlogged fields broken only by an occasional knot of trees. In the village some houses built on higher ground are still standing - many of which bear the tell-tale damp line left behind by 10ft-high floodwaters - but most of the traditional mud-walled homes are now nothing more than piles of bricks.

A quarter of Reejhpur's inhabitants are still living in the camps they fled to when the waters first crept around the village. Those who have returned sleep under blue tents provided by aid agencies. All complain of being tormented by mosquitoes that swarm from the foul-smelling pools and creeks. Mothers talk of children constantly falling sick due to poor sanitation. Many villagers have worn the same clothes for months - they have nothing else but what they were wearing when they escaped the deluge.

The Solangi family is one of the worst affected in Reejhpur. All their livestock perished and their homes were washed away. With much of the land that once provided livelihoods from farming rice and wheat still submerged, the future looks extremely bleak.

More than half the family have decided to stay in nearby camps rather than be faced with daily reminders of all they have lost.

"What kind of life is this," says Longkhan, his weatherbeaten face creased with anger. "All my family saved in the floods was our lives. Everything else was destroyed." One of the family's biggest concerns is the health of Longkhan's daughter-in-law Shahbana, who is 10 months pregnant. "I feel very weak. It's difficult to stay healthy in these conditions," she says, swatting away flies. "But most of all, I am worried about delivering my baby. Will it survive? What kind of life can I give my baby here?"

The world's attention has moved on since August, when the UN calculated that the total affected by Pakistan's floods - up to 20 million people - amounted to a number greater than the Asian tsunami, the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and this year's earthquake in Haiti combined. The World Bank has put the estimated cost of flood recovery at $9.7 billion (€7.3 billion). Foreign donors have so far contributed just under half of the $2 billion the UN asked for in September, the largest-ever appeal by it for a natural disaster.

In the last month, the UN and its partners have delivered food to six million people in the worst-hit regions. Emergency shelter materials have been distributed to 4.7 million people, and more than seven million have been provided with basic healthcare.

But, as UN humanitarian affairs chief Valerie Amos noted after touring Sindh by air last week, the emergency stage is far from over.

"The floods in Pakistan are slowly falling out of the headlines but people are still experiencing an acute emergency situation which requires international attention," she said.

"This is an emergency which will continue for months to come, and considerable relief efforts will continue to be necessary alongside recovery activities and development work. There is still a great deal to do." While aid agencies fret over the millions who remain highly vulnerable, particularly as winter sets in, the Pakistani government's response to the continuing crisis has been undermined by bickering between federal and provincial authorities. In Reejhpur and other parts of Sindh, there is much criticism of official efforts many consider half-hearted.

More than €45 million worth of donations to the prime minister's flood relief fund remains unspent. A government electronic cash card scheme, designed to give each of the worst-off families a sum equivalent to more than €800 to rebuild their homes and lives, has been dogged with problems.

"We have reports of people not knowing how to use the cash cards, machines not having any cash, not having any power. There have been issues of access . . . it's a significant issue," said Amil Khan of Oxfam.

Longkhan says that so far, he has spent money from the cash card on food.

"Mine is a big family and there are many mouths to feed. Right now that is my priority." The problem in Dadu and other parts of Sindh is nobody is sure how long it will take for the floodwaters to drain away or evaporate. Estimates range from two to five months.

There are some in Reejhpur who are close to giving up. They talk of moving to one of Sindh's cities in search of a new life. Longkhan is dismissive.

"What would we do there? Our families have farmed this land for generations.

"This is all we know. I was born here, and I will die here."

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