After the floods

Months after devastating floods, Pakistan is struggling to recover, reports Kate Lloyd

“As I flew into Pakistan in August, I looked out of the window of the plane and – oh my gosh – all I could see was water, just water and some small patches of land scattered in the middle. It was terrifying and surreal.”

Usama Jadid, a Pakistani national, student at Sheffield University and events co-ordinator of its Pakistan Society, returned to his family in Lahore over the summer, during the height of the country’s devastating flooding.

Over 20 million people were affected by the flooding and 132,000km of the country left underwater as it was hit by the worst monsoons in 80 years, with almost 30 per cent more rainfall than the average summer.

“Everyone knew someone who was affected, who had lost their home or their family or their livelihood, or someone who had taken in an orphaned child or who had hired out trucks to take aid directly to those suffering,” Jadid says.

“There’s not a single bridge left in some valleys.”

Now that the flood waters have started to clear and citizens are starting to rebuild their lives, there are concerns about the health and economic wellbeing of those affected, as well as murmurs about the illegitimacy of some refugee camps and the unfair distribution of government aid among the public.

Dr Daanish Mustafa, professor of geography at King’s College London, who has studied the rivers of Pakistan for over a decade and has long warned about their vulnerability to flooding, says: “There’s not a single bridge left in some valleys, four million people are left without modern communication and there is still standing water – they haven’t drained it.”
Standing water is a big problem. Not only does it obstruct the rebuilding of individuals’ lives, it also increases the risk of diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera and hepatitis – already high because populations have been displaced and are in camps.

Mustafa adds that it is imperative that farmers sow their winter crops in the next few weeks if they are to feed themselves and for the economy to recover. But doing so is impossible in areas still underwater.

“If the crops aren’t sown, I don’t even want to think about what will happen,” he says. “Recovery time is running out.”

“No one knows who to trust, who to give money to.”

A large proportion of the population is still living in refugee camps around the country, especially in Sindh province where the flood waters are still almost four feet deep. The UN Refugee Agency alone has helped move 1.4 million people across Pakistan, providing them with tents and household items, with other organisations doing the same. But there are concerns about the authenticity of some of the camps.

Jadid says: “There are so many – the official ones run by the army but also a large number of random ones. Some are genuine and others not. My friends from school set up kitchens and camps, using donations from friends and family. They feed 300 people a day but it’s a time of chaos and everyone is panicked. No one knows who to trust, who to give money to. You hear stories about some camps taking money off donors and keeping it for themselves.”

He is also worried about the way the government is distributing aid. “The public of Pakistan think that the aid isn’t being spread properly.”

Sean Penny, media officer for the charity Action Aid UK, says: “The government has started giving out Watan cards, preloaded with money, to those who have lost their homes and livelihoods in the flooding. It’s an attempt to help restart local economies, and help begin to get crops together.

“Lots of citizens, however, have been displaced and haven’t received one and are terrified that they aren’t going to receive the aid they qualify for. We help them lobby the government to get their cards.”

Only 20 per cent of flood victims have access to soap and a third are affected by open defecation. Malnutrition is expected to affect 56,000 people. Despite being surrounded by water, a clean source can also be hard to come by.

The floods have already damaged $1 billion of crops

Action Aid is helping people rebuild their villages and houses and is offering them raw materials for farming – seeds and fertilizer – but all this is in vain if flood waters are not cleared.

The floods have already damaged $1 billion of crops, causing shortages. Pakistan will harvest 4.4 million tonnes of rice next year – 35 per cent less than the previous year – according to a report by the US Department of Agriculture. Food and fuel will have to be imported, pushing up the cost of everyday essentials. Penny says: “Food and fuel prices have already gone up. There is less land available for growing crops and people can’t afford to send their children to school.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has called for funds to replace half a million tonnes of wheat seed stocks destroyed by the floods, with planting of the staple due to take place over the coming months. But with the monsoon season drowning the country every year, there are concerns about Pakistan’s chances of long-term recovery.

As annual rainfall increases, Mustafa believes that the way in which Pakistan’s rivers are controlled and farmland is drained needs to change, otherwise the country may be hit by floods of a similar scale again in the coming years.

Pakistan’s wetlands have been drained and removed, leaving the rivers’ excess water with nowhere to go. The government had focused on building dams to control the rivers, but that means silt loads now get deposited on the river beds, leaving beds elevated and their capacity to drain flood water decreased. As a consequence, Pakistan’s previous cycle of frequent, low intensity flooding has been placed by one of infrequent, high intensity flooding.

This isn’t the only problem. Due to climate change, erratic weather patterns like increased monsoon rainfall are likely to become even more common. Pakistan has experienced extraordinary weather patterns five times over the past decade and so previous averages and strategies against flooding no longer hold. Mustafa believes, therefore, that it would be more sensible to manage the monsoon flooding than it is to try to control it, as Pakistan is doing now.

“They shouldn’t try to straitjacket the rivers as they are doing. If you fight the river you will lose. If lessons are learnt, the rivers must be allowed to flow more naturally, then next time the effects of a heavy monsoon will be milder. But it seems that quite the opposite is happening, so it will happen again.”

This is not a disaster to be talked about in the past tense. “It is important that people outside Pakistan are kept aware of the disaster, as when you are there, it is hard to know what is going on but from outside the country you can see the whole of Pakistan and all the problems it faces – the big picture, like from the window of a plane,” says Jadid. “You can work out what needs to be done.”

Photo: A villager leads his buffalos through the floodwaters while returning to his home in Khairpur Nathan Shah in Sindh province last month: Reuters/ Akhtar Soomro

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