Migration, mosquitos and mismanagement — more than a million Mirpurkhas residents struggle after monsoon rains
It presents the scene of a post-apocalyptic movie. Make-shift tents line up both sides of the road. On either side, rain water has submerged large swathes of land as far as the eye as can see.
Between August 18 and September 4, Mirpurkhas division received over 530 millimetres of rainfall spread over three spells, devastating the already crumbling infrastructure and inundating much of the region. With no pathway for the water to drain, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes and set up temporary make-shift tents on roads, which are slightly higher than their now-flooded homes on either side.
Mirpurkhas division comprises three districts — Tharparkar, Umerkot and its namesake, Mirpurkhas — and is located in the south-eastern quadrant of Sindh. The divisional headquarter, Mirpurkhas city, is home to a population of around 270,000, making it the seventh-largest city in the province.
While several areas of the city itself have been inundated, the surrounding villages are the worst-affected.
“It’s not just that people’s homes have been destroyed,” said Jahangir Junejo, a landlord in the Sindhri tehsil of Mirpurkhas district. “Standing crops on thousands of acres have been wiped out. Now, the landlords have suffered heavy losses and the farmers have no work,” he explained, adding that villagers were literally dying of hunger.
They also have no potable water to drink, seeing as much of the ground water was accessed through hand pumps. Now, with dirty water standing on the land and in the canals, the hand pumps have been rendered useless and potable water is hard to come by, if any.
Much of the population of Mirpurkhas division is dependent upon agriculture and livestock for sustenance. The vast majority live in abject poverty, compounded by the devastation caused by the rain. “The peasants work the fields and share the profit with the landlord,” explained Junejo. “But the rains have devastated both classes by destroying the crops, pushing the landlord into debt and rendering the farmers jobless.”
The people of Mirpurkhas are used to hunger. Some seasons, when there is a good crop, they have aplenty. Other times, they make do with what they can. What they aren’t used to are the swarms of mosquitos that have enveloped the region after the rains.
“These blood-sucking monsters are killing us, they are killing our livestock,” said Ram Lal, who had set up small tents for his family on main Khipro road, just outside the city’s limits. Khipro is a small town in adjoining Sanghar district, located approximately 50 kilometres from Mirpurkhas city. The tents are a combination of cloth rags and plastic sheets, perched atop tree branches. Almost all have branches of dried Neem leaves hanging on all sides to ward off mosquitos.
“These mosquitos are unlike any you may have seen,” said Lal, waving his arms animatedly. “They’re bigger than the house fly and don’t even move when you shoo them away.”
Lal has also bought mosquito nets to protect his livestock, half of which have died after being bitten by mosquitos. Carcasses of cows, buffaloes, sheep and even donkeys line the roads in many parts of the division.
“This is a sorry sight,” said Khemchand Meghwar, a resident of Abu Bakr Junejo village, Mirpurkhas district. “The people of this region always buried their dead, even the livestock. But now they are dying in such numbers that they are forced to abandon the bodies on the roadside.”
Mosquito nets, meanwhile, have become a precious commodity. Their price has increased from Rs100 per metre to Rs450-Rs500. “Often, these villagers must make a choice — whether to protect their livestock or their children,” lamented Meghwar.
At the make-shift settlements on the roads, barely clothed children of all ages roam freely, swimming in the murky water or playing with each other. “They keep falling sick from all the mosquito bites,” decried Dhagi Kolhi, who estimated her age to be around 40 years old. “Where do I take them? There is no medical help available.”
Inside the city, the road leading to the Taluka Headquarter Hospital Khipro is flooded in knee-deep rain water, mixed with sewerage. “We have never seen anything like this,” said Raja Khatri, a resident who has lived in the vicinity for the last 30 years. “This road has been flooded for the last 17-18 days and no one has made any effort to drain it,” he said. “The officials come in their big, fancy cars, do their survey and leave, without ever coming back to check again.”
Inside the hospital, attendants must carry the patients on their backs to reach the main building. “We have seen women being brought to deliver babies forced to be carried on stretchers through the water to reach the main building,” said another resident, Adnan. “These politicians only come to us at the time of elections. No one cares that people are dying here because they can’t even reach the hospital,” he said, citing the example of a young gunshot-victim who died a few days ago because the car he was being brought in broke down in the middle of the road due to the water.
A few miles away in Pithoro taluka, Umerkot district, the Taluqa Headquarter Hospital, presents a similar picture. The path leading to the main building is inundated with ankle-deep water. Inside, there is no doctor available and the hospital has been left in the care of the dispenser. “The doctor who is on duty met with an accident while traveling on his motorcycle and had to be taken to Hyderabad for treatment,” said Mohammad Asghar, the dispenser. “We do what we can in their absence,” he carried on, as a snake-bite victim was brought in and he rushed to inject the anti-venom.
At least three to four victims of snake bite have been brought to the hospital regularly since the rain commenced, said the security guard posted at the gate. “Most victims are children, who get bitten while playing in the water or near it.”
Across the division, those who still have the resources have chosen to migrate to drier land. Many have gone to desert areas of Tharparkar, some even as far as Winder, Balochistan. “I know of at least eight families who migrated to Winder,” said Shehzad Khan, a resident of Khipro town. Each family sold off some livestock and paid around Rs35,000 in travel costs, taking whatever household goods and livestock they could salvage.
“The majority of the population comprises peasants, but there’s no work for the foreseeable future,” explained Khan. “The water that is standing in the fields is almost 10 feet deep at some points. It is unlikely that the water will drain before the wheat sowing season in November. So these families have migrated to desert regions to salvage at least their livestock, which are dying due to the mosquitos and polluted water.”
Given the circumstances, landlords, who are often known to exploit peasants and engage them in a cycle of debt to bind them to work on their lands, are actively encouraging them to leave. “What will we do? How are we supposed to feed 300 to 400 families every day for the next four to six months without any income?” asked Junejo, when questioned about the situation.
But most don’t even have the luxury to migrate too far away, given the exorbitant costs and the hope that things will normalise sooner than later. With their homes destroyed, however, many have had to settle on roads in the make-shift tents or on rare occasions, in proper ones distributed by the provincial government.
In Umerkot, one such ‘tent city’ is home to over 5,000 families. They have come from as far away as 15 to 20 kilometres in the hopes of better facilities than they would receive on the roads. “It’s all a farce,” said Lal Chand Oudh, a resident of Dino Chang village, located around 7 kilometres from the camp.
“We get a quarter of a kilo of biryani to feed my family of eight once a day from the government,” he said. “How do you expect my children to survive like this?” His family was one of the first to arrive and have received a tent from the provincial government. Others have not been so lucky. According to estimates from the residents of the tent city, the government has provided 500 tents, while there are over 5,000 families currently living in the settlement.
Nevertheless, many here count themselves as fortunate enough to have access to a medical camp set up by the provincial government as well as potable water, which arrives via tankers several times a day. Here too, the biggest worry is mosquitos, which swarm the settlement after dark by the billions, says Chand.
On Monday, as news of the devastation finally caught the attention of some sections of the media, PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari decided to make his way to Mirpurkhas. Anticipating his arrival, the police forced all shops along the route of his journey to shut. “First the rains destroy our homes and then these politicians come and force our businesses shut,” Muhammad Anwar, who runs a general store on the main Mirpurkhas highway just outside the city’s limits, said angrily.
The same day, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah addressed a letter to the prime minister, apprising him of the situation and seeking help from the federal government to mitigate the crisis.
“The record rainfall, as per initial damage assessment of DCs and Relief Commissioner, has affected nearly 2.5 million persons (over 500,000 households across Sindh) to varying degrees: over 1 million acres of crops have been affected and over 15 thousand villages got inundated. More than 77 thousand houses have been damaged fully, while over 137 thousand houses have been damaged partially,” states the letter, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com.
As per the letter, the most affected district in the province is Mirpurkhas with 931,901 persons affected, followed by Umerkot, where 697,900 people have been displaced.
In much of the region, residents complained of having been left to fend for themselves without any help from the government.
Sufi Aqeel Sadiq, who is affiliated with the PPP and a district council member from UC Sufi Faqeer in Pithoro tehsil, admitted that the relief efforts have so far been inadequate and slow. “There were over 12,000 people living in my UC, 80 per cent of whom have been forced to migrate,” said Sadiq.
According to Sadiq, the provincial government has distributed some tents, but they are not nearly enough for the number of people affected. “Moreover, these people have nothing to eat. They have no medical facilities. And the worst are the mosquitos, which are killing them and their livestock,” he said, estimating that almost half the livestock in the area had perished by now.
Recalling the 2011 floods when several areas in the region were inundated, Sadiq said: “The 2011 floods caused more destruction but we saw a far quicker response. Today, it’s been 15 days that the water is standing on the land and there is almost no effort afoot to provide relief to the affectees, let alone try to drain it. Even the NGOs, over 140 of which are operational in Umerkot alone, are missing in action,” he lamented.
For his part, Sindh government minister Syed Sardar Shah, whose constituency lies in Umerkot, told Dawn.com that between 600,000 to 700,000 out of the district’s total population of 1.1 million had been affected. “This is a big catastrophe,” he exclaimed, echoing Sadiq’s observation that relief efforts had been inadequate until now. “Due to the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) regulations, international NGOs have not even stepped into the area yet. Moreover, in the 2011 floods, many philanthropists from Karachi came to the affected areas to help. This time, Karachi was flooded too so the attention was shifted to the port city.”
The federal government, he said, is a whole different story. "The prime minister comes to Karachi after so much noise and announces a package for it. Can they not see what's happening here? Is this not part of Pakistan?"
Asked about the Sindh government’s response, he admitted that the government had not even been able to scratch the surface yet. “In my district, there are around 700,000 people affected and we have only managed to distribute 8,000 tents,” he said. “You can understand our limitations in terms of resources.”
Shah, who currently holds the portfolio of culture, tourism and antiquities, said that he has requested the chief minister to depute more doctors and health workers to the area. The Sindh government is also aware of the mosquito nightmare, but there isn’t much they can do about it, he said. “We have started spraying but there is no solution for them until the water is completely drained.”
Even so, Shah said, the worst is not over for Umerkot. “Currently, the water standing on the land is that which we received in the rains. Now, when Sanghar starts draining its water, it will end up in Umerkot and the Hakro drain is blocked so there is no way to clear it from here. That will be the biggest challenge,” he said.
According to Shah, the Hakro drain is the main outlet that transported flood and rain water into the sea. Over the years, it has become blocked and no one paid much attention to it because there was no need felt for it. “But now, we are stuck, because there is no way for the water to drain.”
Back in Mirpurkhas, efforts to reach the district government proved futile. Mirpurkhas Division Assistant Commissioner Attaullah Shah refused to speak on the issue, citing the chief minister’s orders not to engage with the media.
A staffer in the commissioner’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Dawn.com that the administration was still waiting to collect data on the damage. “We will have to wait for the water level to recede before we start measuring the impact,” he said. “Once the water recedes, only then will we be able to tell the damage it has caused to structures.”
Asked of relief efforts in the meantime, he said that the provincial government had announced some measures but he wasn’t aware of the details as they hadn’t been communicated to the divisional administration yet.
Meanwhile, the residents are getting more desperate by the day. “We don’t have anything to feed our children,” said Deedar Hussain Dars, a resident of Sahir Dars Goth in US Sufi Faqeer. “We don’t have water to drink. But worst of all, the mosquitos are killing us. If help doesn’t come soon, people will start dying in large numbers just like their livestock.”