01 Sep 2010

First-Hand Account of Pakistan Flood Disaster by M.H Sader, AIF Team Member

Having experienced so much during our stay in Pakistan, I am now faced with the somewhat impossible task of noting down what I’ve seen onto paper. And even if this seemingly daunting task is achievable and it is possible for me to relate what I’ve experienced justly, with so much to tell, where does one start? Taking the advice of a learned man I think it wise to start at the beginning! As our plane started its descent toward Islamabad, we strained our eyes to get a view of the flood ridden country below. The cloud infested sky made it difficult to get a glimpse and we found ourselves hoping beyond hope that the situation was not as bad as we were made to believe,. Maybe the reports were exaggerated, maybe the situation was improving. But this hope was short lived because at that precise moment the clouds parted to reveal the bleak reality of a country inundated with flood water. The reports were correct and the situation was worse than any allowance made by the imagination. The view from the top revealed the vast amount of land claimed and consumed by the mighty Indus River. In fact, it seemed as if there was more water than land and in some parts this was actually a reality. But rather than fill the AIF team with dread and the hopelessness that emanates from imagining the millions of people who are suffering, the harsh reality presented to us boosted our grit and determination. It reminded us of our purpose and our promise to donors that we will do our utmost to assist our brothers and sisters in need. Our need to serve humanity drove us and the confidence of our donors that we refused to betray gave us urgency. Considering that monsoons are a common occurrence in this part of the world and that year after year the Indus river successfully contains the volumes of water provided by monsoon rainfall, the question that came to mind and baffled the thoughts was why was this year different? Why did the Indus fail this time over? Indeed something was amiss. Upon further enquiry and investigation it was brought to our attention that the floods were not only a result of the seasonal monsoon rainfall. Rather there was a dual factor responsible for these unprecedented floods. One factor was definitely the result of high volumes of rain, the other was a result of glacial melting. Speaking to people learned in such matters, we were able to uncover that one of the reasons for the melting of the glaciers was the early arrival of spring. This unscheduled arrival of spring had serious implications in that it was partly or greatly responsible for the flood. This requires some explanation. Pakistan is a mountainous area and during the winter snow forms on the mountain tops. The gradual melting of this snow does not usually present a problem in that the Indus river and its subsidiaries has the capacity to hold such water. However, with the early arrival of spring, the snow started to melt at a much faster rate thus filling up the river faster than usual. The rains that usually accompany spring also started earlier than expected and thus together with the glacial melting provided too much water for the Indus and its subsidiaries to contain. The Indus burst its banks wreaking havoc, death, destruction and misery to the unsuspecting people of Pakistan. From its beginning in the mountainous North to the flatter gradually sloped South, this flood has left no province untouched. Some areas still remain submerged, others have been washed away as if they never existed and others still have been completely cut off. Help was required everywhere, but in our assessment preference was given to those areas that were cut off from aid due to the flood. What was surprising about these areas was that even in situations of normalcy where no disaster has struck, these regions have found themselves being amongst those most neglected in Pakistan. With most of the aid effort being centralised near the capital cities it was decided that our effort should be directed to the outlying areas and more so in those towns that were left inaccessible by the flood. With the roads being washed away, the only way to reach such areas was by air. In our efforts to attain such an aircraft, a meeting was set up with the Department of Social Development known as the Pakistani Baitul Mal. Upon presentation of our proposal, the government wing availed to us at no cost, a C130 Hercules Military Cargo Aircraft to transport the much needed emergency aid to the respective districts of concern. This aircraft was laden with tents, food, water, baby food etc to cater for the immediate need of those who were yet to receive aid. In the absence of airports in these districts, we were given permission to land at a military airbase in the South of the Punjab province. This province was cut off from aid and represented one of the worst hit provinces in Pakistan. When the aircraft touched down, no time was wasted in getting this aid to the desperate recipients. The aid was transported to areas which included Rajanpur, Jampur, Muzzafargarh, and Multan. During our three day stay in the Punjab district, we met locals from various areas who informed us of the dire need of aid in these places. They pointed out that not enough aid had reached them and that much more aid was required. According to the people we conversed with, apart from the main flood resulting from the Indus bursting its banks, the area was also suffering from flash floods caused by the continuous rainfall and electric storms. In some areas where the roads have been partly washed away, boats are being used to transport people from one side to the other. Unfortunately this is a chargeable ride as the boat owners have capitalised on the potentially profitable situation. In the Punjab district there has been severe infrastructural damage, a 70 % loss of electricity, houses are completely submerged, entire villages have been washed away and the fresh water channel has been penetrated by the floods thus contaminating the supply of fresh water and rendering the water undrinkable. The livelihood of these people has also been washed away with the flood as these people are completely dependent on agriculture. It is interesting to note is that these districts have not seen floods for decades. They are hardly even perceived as potential flood areas. So much so, that when the flood warning was sounded hardly any people took heed and many who tried to spread the word were looked upon with questioning eyes. A man that lived in the area for many years related to us that neither had his father, nor his father’s father before him told their sons that this was a potential flood area. This illustrates that to many, this was a flood of surprise. Another worrying factor in the Punjab province and further South into Sindh is the stagnation of flood water. Unlike the North where the terrain is mountainous and the water was able to drain away after flooding, the South has seen the water stagnating because it has nowhere to go. The ground has absorbed as much as it can and the terrain is not steep enough for the water to drain, hence the water is just standing and is fast becoming a breeding ground for disease. Many water-borne diseases such as cholera, tetanus, meningitis, typhoid and malaria are already prevalent in these areas. Having completed our distribution and our assessment of the future needs of the people of the Punjab district the AIF team then returned to Rawalpindi where work was already well underway for another distribution in Azakehl, Nowshera. This distribution took place on Monday the 30th of August and was attended by the South African Deputy High Commissioner and the City of Johannesburg search and rescue team. Once again the Al Imdaad Team was able to identify people who had not received any aid and distribute much need emergency aid to them. The distribution pack included tents, food (1 months supply), cooking utensils, clothing and fresh water. Having taken care of the immediate need of the people by providing emergency relief items, the Al Imdaad Foundation now envisages the building of semi permanent homes for these people. Reconstruction and development has been identified as the greatest current need of the Pakistani people and thus the Al Imdaad Foundation has negotiated the building of these semi permanent homes. The Foundation is also looking into the possibility of sending a team of doctors as it has been identified that although there is an abundance of medical supplies, there is a shortage of medical personnel to administer these medicines to the people. The massive floods that began to hit Pakistan in late July have afflicted the country extremely. Seventy-nine of the country’s 124 districts have been affected. Official estimates say 1,600 people have been killed, over 2000 have been injured and more than 20 million are affected by the catastrophe. The disaster has not only led to losses in terms of human casualties and large scale displacement but has also damaged the agricultural country’s major crops over an estimated area of more than 1.38 million acres which constitutes 30 per cent of Pakistan’s agricultural land. For a country whose people and economy are heavily dependent on agriculture these floods are going to have serious implications not only in the short term, but for a long, long time to come.