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At the mercy of the water

September 09, 2014

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Families took to the rooftop of their houses after the floodwaters surged through a village along the Wazirabad-Gujrat bypass on Sunday. 
—Tariq Mahmood / White Star
Families took to the rooftop of their houses after the floodwaters surged through a village along the Wazirabad-Gujrat bypass on Sunday. —Tariq Mahmood / White Star

Women hugged one another as if they hadn’t met in ages; men kissed children like they had returned home from war.

A decrepit boat had just brought in 16 women and children who had been trapped in the floodwaters in Boon Fazil, a village in the floodplain along the Chenab River some five kilometres from Jalalpur Bhattian in Hafizabad since midnight on Saturday.

Safia Bibi pushed her way through a large crowd of spectators gathered near Jamal Town, about a kilometre from Jalalpur Bhattian on Vanikay Road, to reach her family on the boat. “If you can’t help us, at least don’t keep us from our loved ones,” she told policemen trying to stop her from heading to the boat.

Her eyes filled with tears, Safia, along with several other men and women whose families had been unable to evacuate before the raging waters drowned their villages and washed away their homes, cattle and belongings, had been imploring district administration officials to arrange boats to pull out their marooned relatives.

But boats and emergency assistance were slow to arrive. The administration, led by Hafizabad DCO Mohammad Usman, was taking its time. When confronted, he claimed that 20 boats had already been sent out. “We’ve saved 1,200 people,” he added, before running off to greet Saira Afzal Tarar, the area’s MNA, who didn’t even bother to step out of her luxury jeep.

Other district officials told Dawn that they didn’t have a single boat and were totally dependent upon the army’s assistance for rescue. “If someone says boats are out saving villagers, he is lying,” said a district government official on the condition of anonymity. “We haven’t pulled anyone out so far.”

An army team had just arrived with two boats, but was finding it difficult to take them down from the truck as everyone wanted them to be immediately sent to their villages to bring back their families. By the time the boats were pushed into the water, one had already cracked and the engine of the other wouldn’t start. Two more boats were brought a little later. Yet only one could be sent out.

In these conditions, the arrival of the boat from Boon Fazil gave hope that others trapped in the Chenab’s waters could still be saved. The three oarsmen were greeted by the crowd as heroes.

“There’re at least 400 to 500 more villagers waiting for help,” said one of the boatmen. “Some retreated to their rooftops and others climbed up trees.” One of his passengers said she had spent the night standing on a metal box in water.

Though the DCO said only a couple of thousand marooned people needed to be rescued from the 150 flooded settlements around Hafizabad district by late Sunday afternoon, Fakhar Alam, a resident of Chak Bhattian, told this reporter over the mobile phone that roughly 15,000 people were stranded in his village, which was surrounded by floodwater.

Meanwhile Abdus Sattar, a resident of the Khutay Shah village, admitted that people had been warned of floods and told to evacuate, but added: “Warnings of water coming mean nothing to poor people; nobody will leave his home and belongings unattended. It’s also the government’s responsibility to make arrangements to evacuate us to safety, and protect our property and cattle.”

Miles from Jalalpur Bhattian, a Punjab irrigation official at the Qadirabad headworks said he had not seen the Chenab so furious in years. “The last time the river swelled to this level was in 1997 when the discharge from the barrage peaked to 873,000 cusecs against a normal peak flow of 400,000 cusecs. Even that was modest against today’s peak of more than 940,000 cusecs.”

In the last few days, the Chenab has left a trail of devastation on its way from Marala to Sialkot, the place from which the river enters Pakistan from India, to Wazirabad, Gujrat, Mandi Bahauddin, Hafizabad and Chiniot. Torrential monsoon rains and a surge in the seasonal drains have exacerbated the situation. Crops on large swathes of farmland have been destroyed, hundreds of settlements submerged, thousands of houses washed away and several roads cut off. Scores of lives are reported to have been lost.

The government’s response has been slow and inadequate all along the path we took between Wazirabad and Hafizabad. “Water levels had been rising for the past three days; Saturday night proved to be the worst. Many houses have collapsed and our crops have been totally washed away. Yet nobody has come to help us,” said Mohammad Hussain, a resident of Chanda Kot village on the Wazirabad-Gujrat bypass, an almost five-minute drive from the Chenab. “We had to evacuate on a self-help basis,” he added, pointing to three families waiting to be evacuated from their rooftops.

Shahnaz Bibi, whose family was rescued by a local boat owner, was angry with the government and her elected representatives for abandoning her family after the deluge hit her village, Chhanni Sultan, four kilometres from Qadirabad. “When they need our votes, they are always around; when we require their help, they are nowhere to be seen. Now they will collect funds in our name which will never reach us,” she said.

Mohammad Arshad, whose family was also evacuated by the same boat owner after the former’s farm equipment, crop, home and belongings had been swept away, wasn’t angry. “It is enough that I have my wife and my child safe beside me,” he explained.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2014