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Pakistan floods, one year on: The disaster that won't recede

25 July 2011

Pakistan floods, one year on: The disaster that won't recede

It’s hard to believe that a whole year has passed and some of the waters in Pakistan’s Sindh province have still not receded after the devastating 2010 floods. Hundreds of thousands of people are still living in temporary shelters, their lives in limbo, barely surviving on food aid from local charities. For those that have returned home, the ruin that has hit lives and livelihoods means recovery could take up to ten years. RedR's Nic Scarborough reports.

You’d think that a year would be more than long enough for the water to go away. But then it’s worth remembering the sheer scale of this disaster. The total flood area was greater than the size of England by August 2010. Floodwaters ranged from 4ft to nearly 40ft. That much water doesn’t go away overnight.
 
The speed at which the waters hit many communities left them no option but to run for their lives. In places, they reached 20 kilometres per hour, with depths increasing at a frightening rate. “When the flood started there was about 2ft of water, and by the time we left our homes it was 4ft,” says Aiman Khadoon who was caught up in the floods but who managed to escape to Sukkur town.
 
At lot rural Sindh is covered in rice fields, so when the heavy monsoon rains came, they fell onto areas already irrigated with 2ft of water. But the water wasn’t just falling from the skies; the banks of the mighty Indus River – and the hundreds of feather-like canals that run off it – began to burst, sending swathes of water towards entire communities. Over the next two months the monsoon rains were unrelenting.
 
The closed confines of hell
 
Like many of Sindh’s rural poor, Aiman and her family were forced to seek refuge wherever they could. For three months they sheltered in a school hall receiving food rations from the government. When Aiman describes her experience it sounds like a version of hell. “It was a closed living environment,” she says, “with a lot of people living together, so people were developing skin diseases and kidney infections.”
 
Aiman says that all she remembers thinking was ‘When will this water recede? Will we be able to go back to our houses or not?’ But whilst she and her family huddled in the cramped confines of the school – often without electricity – waiting to go home, the monsoon season was adding yet more and more floodwater to an already devastating situation.
 
In Shapkapur district in Sindh province approximately 150,000 people have still not returned to their homes, or what is left of them. There are living in tents by the sides of roads in towns and cities; some are huddled together, others on their own. They sleep under a cotton canvas sheet that is raised with two tent poles. They have little fires that act as stoves at night. They have nowhere else to go.
 
But it’s not only that some floodwaters have not receded; many people are too scared to return to their homes. In a matter of minutes people’s lives were shattered; nearly 2,000 people drowned. Those that escaped were lucky. And again this year the monsoon rains are expected to be higher than usual – by more than 10%. But who can predict for sure whether it will be safe?
 
Returning to nothing
 
For those that have returned in stages over the course of the last year, life is not much different to living in a tent. For miles all you can see is a wasteland; the whole district lies at the bottom of a dry riverbed. In the grey, unfertile land, there is nothing but a few desert shrubs sprouting up every few metres.
 
I met an elderly man in one village who cried in front of me, as he explained that for a year he and his family have lived off food rations from a local charity, whilst the land he used to cultivate sits barren, silted, cracked, wasted. He doesn’t have the money to get the land de-silted – a two week process of ploughing and watering until the land is fertile enough to cultivate again.
 
Like many in rural Sindh, he was already living on the poverty line. When he and his family returned to their village after the floods, things just got worse. Their homes, many of them simple mud huts, were gone. With nowhere to live and with little prospect of being able to work the land for an income whole communities are reaching the point of desperation.
 
But the on-going challenges that face people like Aiman are not simply ones of poverty. Unlike in other provinces in Pakistan, many of the rural poor in Sindh do not own their land and therefore don’t have power over their own incomes. Aiman and her family live in a modern-day feudal system.
 
The small income she does generate equates to less than £0.50 per day for each member of her family. Saving for materials to rebuild is almost impossible.
 
Aiman and her family are alive, but they are barely living. By her estimation it will take eight to ten years for them to recover from the floods. This disaster is far from over.

 

RedR's current Pakistan programme began in March 2010 and has since trained thousands of local aid workers in a range of vital humanitarian skills.

See more pictures from flood affected areas here.

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Photo ©: RedR / Usman Ghani

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