In the courtyard of a building that was going to be an undergraduate college outside the port city of Karachi, Pakistan, Allah Baksh boils a pot of tea over an open fire. He and 3,000 others found sanctuary there after their lives were uprooted from villages in a 1,000 km radius around the city by the spreading waters of the Indus River, rolling through the southern province of Sindh to the sea.
“It took a lifetime to put together what I had – it took the water just five minutes to wash it away,” Allah Baksh said in a mixture of Sindhi and Urdu. Others from Mirpur Buriro, their village, agree. They are all subsistence farmers whose rice and cotton crops, livestock and houses were swept away – livelihood, shelter and security swallowed by the floodwater in one gulp. “Allah ki marzi [It is God’s will],” he added.
Many cannot look beyond their shattered lives – it has only been 10 days since they lost everything. “The water will take months – maybe years – to go away in our village,” said Allah Baksh. “Until then we need to get work to feed our families – you must ask the government to get us work,” he tells Abdul Sattar, the district administrator.
The villagers are grateful someone is listening. “They have had no counselling – we don’t really have the resources,” Sattar said. The people will need a place to stay for at least three months, “but in some parts of Sindh, which is already quite water-logged, the water may be around for a couple of years.” The college camp and two others in the area are near the port, and “we are trying to negotiate with some of the companies to see if they could hire the men as casual labour.”
The camp in the college at Hawks Bay, a Karachi suburb, is one of three set up in the area by the cash strapped local administration, which seems as overwhelmed as the population it is trying to help. The provincial administration has been running on an overdraft. “We are ready to step in and we have started the process, but aid has been slow in coming and whatever has come in has been too little,” said Kazi Ayaz Mahessar, resident UN coordinator in Sindh Province.
While the villagers are trying to deal with the enormity of their loss, the local administration is struggling to contain the effects of ignorance of hygiene norms. Abdul Latif, a government doctor who regularly visits the camp, says he has been seeing at least 40 cases of diarrhoea every day.
There are toilets in the building but the stench emanating from them is overpowering. Sattar says if they had the resources, “We would like all the people to be stationed in one open camp, with separate areas for washing, drinking and bathing, so we can maintain proper hygiene.”
Clean drinking water is critical. “We have received water purification tablets but this is not adequate for 3.6 million people already displaced in this province,” noted Mahessar. “And the numbers are rising as Thatta [the last district through which the Indus flows before it reaches the Arabian Sea] gets flooded – we expect the figure to rise to 4.5 million.” The national highway to Thatta is already being flooded.
District administrator Sattar maintains that lack of information is the bigger issue. “A local NGO wanted to supply us with mineral water; they brought in hundreds of bottles, but when they saw the people using it for washing their clothes they never came back.”
Adequate nutrition for children is also critical. Benazir Khatoon, 18, is worried because the children have not had milk for five days. “In the village we had our own buffaloes – they drank milk every day – see how pale and weak they look now,” she said.
“Nutrition for children is a major concern – the displaced are being provided mainly with adult food,” said UN resident coordinator Mahessar. It is Ramadan [when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset] and the administration, backed by private donors, has been trying to provide a cooked evening meal.
Sattar says that ideally they would like to provide people with a weekly ration of uncooked food and access to open air fires or stoves outside the camp. “We have problems with supplying cooked food – we cannot exercise quality control, as the food is sometimes cooked five hours before it gets here.”
The government will have to start thinking of long-term strategies to get people back on their feet. “I have been reading about climate change, I know we are going to get more floods. We have to start planning – more and more people are going to be displaced,” he noted.
As growing crowds of people displaced by floodwater in Thatta district make their way to the camps in Karachi, the local administration said they did not have the resources to accommodate them all.
The Karachi camps are only a few of several hundred dotted across the country, many run by NGOs, and they all need to be accounted for so they can register beneficiaries and be able to help them, said Mahessar.
The UN, supported by international and local NGOs, is setting up hubs in major cities and towns; UN teams are out in the field conducting assessments to plan the next round of aid, which will focus on recovery. “It is difficult, as the disaster is still unfolding,” said an experienced aid worker. “I have never seen anything like this.”
In the college camp the women talk about their memories, fearful that they will forget because there are no physical reminders left. “A river flows through what was once our village – some people told us the water is five to six feet [1.5m to 2m] deep there,” said Sardara Khatoon, Benazir’s mother. “My father-in-law held onto his buffaloes, he could not leave them. The water took them all.”
Benazir’s mother had collected a dowry for each of her three daughters. “I had everything they would ever need, even a washing machine! We were getting marriage offers, we would have had them all married soon.” The dowry was all stacked against the wall in their house. “Allah only knows where it is now.”
Benazir was the lucky owner of a sewing machine. “I can alter the clothes we get from people … we are human beings who have lost all our things, not beggars. Our village did not have a school for girls. I earned a living through the machine. You think you can get me one?”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations