Caught between a natural disaster, an economic crisis and poor governance, flood-affected Pakistanis contemplate a future in ruins.
THATTA, SINDH — In a hastily put together settlement in the Matka embankment area of Thatta, Leela Mallah, carrying a child on her hip, looks at her new home: pieces of cloth draped over a bamboo structure assembled by the side of a road.
Leela’s actual home was washed away in the floods that have devastated the provinces of Sindh, Balochistan, South Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since the middle of June, due to what Senator Sherry Rehman, the federal minister for climate change, called a “Monster Monsoon”.
Pakistan is receiving an abnormal amount of rain this monsoon season. This, combined with the water from the melting of glaciers in the mountain ranges of the north, has led to floods unlike anything the country has seen before. More than 1,100 people have died, while innumerable others have been injured and at least 33 million have been stranded. Lack of communication and medical facilities in remote parts of the country mean that more cases of death, injury and stranding may be unreported. In this settlement alone, a pregnant woman recently died because she could not access medical help, while another woman died due to snakebite.
The flood-affected, meanwhile, are trying to work out how to put their lives together again. Many of them have been through the 2010 floods, which until now were the worst Pakistan had ever faced. But this year’s rains have been the most devastating by far, swallowing homes, destroying already poor infrastructure and wiping away crops. Coupling this natural disaster with the economic crisis that Pakistan is going through at this time, the flood-affected people wonder how they will survive.
“We do not know how we will rise from these ruins. Only when the flood water leaves the land can we begin to estimate our losses,” said agriculturist Haneef Soomro, whose fields are invisible beneath flood water.
"We have to beg for food"
As the villagers contemplate their future, the provincial governments are finding it difficult to ensure that the flood-affected get enough food, shelter and clothing to make it through this terrible time.
A fellow reporter in Makli, Thatta, was left horrified when he was accosted by a little girl who demanded that he take her picture and publish it. “If you click a picture, I will have a meal,” she said.
The administration is so overwhelmed that entire communities of stranded people have been left to survive on their own. As young as she is, this little girl knows that a photograph published by a news organisation will bring her community instant government relief.
The flood-affected people are scattered to the four winds and people have nothing to feed their families. In a shelter constructed from a ralli (traditional quilt) and bamboo poles, Janal Mallah said, “We are not beggars, but the rains and floods have put us on the streets and we are treated like dogs. Why must we go hungry for days?”
Janal is from the Sindhi Mallah or fisher community. Not only has this community lost several villages in Thatta, but the floods have made the river water so salty and so filled with debris that they cannot even feed themselves with fish.
In 2010, recalls Muhammad Hussain Mallah, the floods had brought with them lots of fish and the Mallah families could eat without depending too much on the government. “Now, we cannot fish, nor does the government help us,” he said.
“With folded hands, I had to beg an army officer and the station house officer of the police for food for our children,” added Janal.
Given the scale of these floods, food is a major problem for the flood-affected, who complain about poor governance. For example, the local administration provided a community of almost 500 people with just one daig (cauldron) of edibles.
Why must we go hungry for days?
The people also say that the government did little to rescue those who were stranded.
“In the recent heavy rains in Katcha area, we rescued around 8,000 people by ourselves. The Sindh government did not send us assistance,” claimed Haneef.
The people of Balochistan claim they have received no relief or rations from their provincial government and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, five brothers marooned in a flood were swept away by the raging waters when the helicopter that was to rescue them was diverted for the use of former prime minister Imran Khan instead. The people of South Punjab have similar complaints.
Flood affected people near Sukkur, a city in the southern province of Sindh.
Losses upon losses
Between the natural disaster and poor governance, it is the poor who suffer the most. Not only are the provincial governments unable to deal with the situation, but the tight hold that they keep on non-governmental organisations or NGOs means that the NGOs are unable to work efficiently as well.
Hameeda Mallah is pregnant. She also has six children who she must somehow keep alive in a situation where there is no food and no drinking water. Some of her children have fallen ill.
“Last night, a pregnant woman lost her life and her child died too because of the lack of medical assistance. No one comes forward to help us,” Hameeda said. She worries that she might suffer the same fate.
UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, estimates that almost 6,50,000 pregnant women in the flood-affected areas of Pakistan require maternal health services to ensure a safe pregnancy and childbirth.
People have lost everything.
“Of the 6.4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance following the monsoon rains, floods, and landslides in Pakistan, more than 1.6 million are women of childbearing age,” said an UNFPA report.
Thatta district has reported a record number of malaria cases. More diseases are expected to arise as river water mingles with flood water. Since the government cannot bring the malaria situation under control, the flood-affected fear that other diseases will run rampant. They do not ask the government to provide everything, they say, but it should at least give them the essentials to survive this tough situation.
According to Haneef, the people of the village had already suffered major losses before the monsoon arrived.
“When we were about to harvest the crop, we were not given our due share of irrigation water,” Haneef said. “Then, when we harvested the crop with just a small amount of water, there were torrential rains which ruined the crops. Now, the flood has ruined both our crops and our land. We in Sindh and Balochistan will take at least a decade to be able to stand on our own feet again.”
Between climate change and poor governance, Haneef added, his people have lost everything.
Information and home minister Sharjeel Imam Memon said: “According to preliminary estimates, a total loss of Rs 860 billion ($10,7 billion) has been caused in Sindh due to the devastations of the rains.”
Pakistan is now likely face a food shortage as a large amount of crops have been damaged.
Starting from scratch
Fisherman Jalal Maachhi and his fellow villagers are camped on the river embankment. Every house in their village is under water.
When he took reporters out on his boat to show them the scale of the flooding, Jalal found a cat stuck in a tree. He tried to rescue the cat, but it was afraid. It jumped into the water and swam to the top of a wall, where it perched itself. Jalal called for a young man named Ayaz Maachhi, who boarded the boat and rescued the cat.
Ayaz has rescued many animals marooned in the water. He cannot reach all of them however, which is why the reporters on Jalal’s boat could only watch with horror as children drank water in which a dead dog was floating.
“Now that you have seen that, I do not need to say anything about how badly the floods have affected us,” said Jalal, pointing to the corpse of the dog.
Meanwhile, Gul Hussain Mallah, whose village has been flooding for 24 hours now, is worried both about his village and his boat. The village was already in poor condition, he said. What it will be like after the flood waters recede is beyond his imagination.
As for his boat, it had cost him about Rs 1.5 lakh ($1,900) and even in the best of circumstances, he cannot earn more than a pittance due to extortion by government officials, Gul Hussain added. “But I cannot leave the boat. It is my income,” he said.
Jalal, like his fellow villagers, is hoping that the government will reconstruct the lost infrastructure and help the farmers and fisherpeople rebuild their lives. But he does not believe that this will happen.
“When we lost our houses, the government did not even give us tents,” he said. “How will they help us reestablish our houses? We will have to rebuild our homes ourselves. We do not have money but we will have to start from scratch.”