If you’re travelling to Bela for the first time, you’re unlikely to even notice the destruction caused by the recent floods. For this small town, located in the heart of Balochistan’s Lasbela district, barely had any infrastructure to begin with.
Spend a few hours in the area and you will find that the irony isn’t lost on its residents. The massive floods, which have killed over 1,300 people and affected over 33 million, have at least brought this town into the spotlight.
You see this irony in the eyes of the women straddling the main highway, arms stretched out, as your air-conditioned car is forced to abruptly apply the brakes to avoid a 10-foot crater in what was once tarmac. You hear this irony in the voices of little children, running barefoot after you, sheepishly asking for snacks. But most of all, you observe this in the disappointment that suddenly appears across their faces when you tell them that no, you are not a relief worker and haven’t got anything to give them.
According to Assistant Commissioner Hamza Anjum, who is responsible for Bela and Uthal tehsils, almost 65 per cent of Bela’s population has been affected by the floods. “Bela has a total population of 104,000, out of which almost 65,000 people have been impacted,” he says, pointing to a stack of papers with details of the affectees.
The majority of this population is dependent on agriculture, with livestock providing an additional cushion to the lucky few.
As Anjum explains his plans for distribution of rations in detail, he acknowledges that despite having a well-planned mechanism in place, there is room for improvement, especially when it comes to coordination for the distribution of relief goods coming in through NGOs and private groups.
“Some NGOs are working in isolation which results in goods being distributed to the same people again and again,” he says, raising one more matter of concern for his administration: “We don’t want these people to become beggars.” With this in mind, he says, they are providing rations for only one week at the moment, lest the rains wreak havoc again. “We want them to be self-reliant and build themselves back up.”
As we follow him to a relief camp where a village used to be, his point about volunteers working in coordination with local authorities rings true with every rock-strewn turn our vehicle takes. But the more devastation we see, the more AC Anjum and his team's plan to instil a sense of self-sufficiency so early in this stage of calamity among the people still picking up pieces of their scattered homes appears to be an uphill task.
What used to be Laal Gul Goth
The land is fed by an irrigation system, comprising canals and tributaries originating from the Pulari river that enters into the district via Khuzdar. It is this river that expanded in the recent floods, fed by water gushing down from the mountains, causing the river and its tributaries to spill over the adjoining lands and destroying hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of standing cotton crop in its wake.
Per the daily situation report issued by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) on September 8, 32 of Balochistan’s 37 districts have been affected by the floods, resulting in the deaths of 263 people and leaving another 166 injured. Over 64,000 homes have been partially or completely destroyed.
At least 35 of these homes were located in village Laal Gul Goth, located around 18 kilometres from the main Regional Cooperation Development (RCD) Highway. Access to the village is difficult to say the least — inaccessible altogether if you’re not in a 4x4 — with the one carpeted road leading to it having been broken beyond use due to the floods. The drive now takes you into the riverbed, which is completely dry. The only evidence of the flood’s prowess are the uprooted trees that you must now avoid to stay on the path marked by tyre tracks of vehicles that have ventured here before you.
Tents in place of houses, camps in place of homes
“We lost the roof above our heads,” says Taj Muhammad Gadoor, a resident pointing to the now dry riverbed where gushing water recently swallowed up the houses in its path.
To make us understand the impact, he quickly goes through his phone to try and find images from before the floods.
He tells us the livestock in the area survived and so did his merchandise from the small shop he owned.
Arriving at the camp, however, we could not have pictured what stood there had we not seen the images. The Saturday afternoon of our visit, villagers are gathered around an army truck that is handing out rations and other essential items. The goods were collected by an NGO, the Niyat Foundation, from donors in Karachi, and transported to the village by army personnel for security reasons.
“We were looted some days earlier,” says Younus Sharif, one of the foundation’s founders, who travelled with the convoy to oversee the distribution. Younus and a few of his fellow volunteers had visited the village around 10 days ago to survey the situation themselves. This time, they returned with a truckload of relief goods — clothes, snacks, rations, medicine, women’s hygiene products — enough to last the villagers a couple of weeks.
The villagers, including the children, appear familiar with the drill; they line up, receive their share patiently and then come to those of us with cameras to pose. The women, however, stay inside the camps and cover their faces as soon as they see any of the workers or journalists.
The camps are stretched into the fields, and a peek inside some of them show belongings crammed into sacks, old suitcases and whatever else they could use for storage.
Mohammad Anwar, one of the residents, vividly remembers the night disaster struck. “It all happened so suddenly,” he says, referring to the night of August 25, when the small 90-foot stream flowing through the village suddenly ballooned into a massive river and swallowed up almost 35 homes, as well as a mosque and madrassah that stood in its path.
AC Anjum explains that the stream he was referring to was the Kanki nadi, a seasonal river that flowed following rainfall in the mountains. The village had grown around this stream and residents used its water for domestic as well as agriculture purposes. “In the recent rains, the sheer volume of water gushing into this seasonal river was such that it expanded its size manifold and the water destroyed everything in its wake.”
‘Where’s my school?’
The visitors can only see what is left now after the water unleashed on the village: large stones and debris that the river carried with it and deposited where the houses once stood.
There’s one structure, however, that still stands — but partially and on the brink of collapse, according to the villagers. It’s the school where more than 85pc of the children were enrolled.
“Boys, girls, they all went to the school,” says Gadoor, adding that the closest one is now three to four kilometres away. He regrets that the school, most likely, will be the last of the rehabilitation process.
The children are more shy when talking about the school, language being a barrier as well. But they all point to the shaky structure when asked about it, barring one young girl, aged between 6-7, who keeps asking her father, “where’s my school?”
“It’s hard for her to recognise it now, especially since the village isn’t there. She feels we may have moved and doesn’t like it one bit,” he says, almost apologetically.
The little girl isn’t the only one anxious about the current living situation.
“The government has given us tents, but we need a proper roof over our heads,” says Anwar. “What if it rains again?” he questions rhetorically. According to AC Anjum, there could be another spell from September 12, but currently it’s expected to be not as severe as the last one.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has already announced Rs0.5 million as compensation for those whose homes had been completely destroyed and Rs200,000 for those whose homes had been partially damaged. How long it takes for the funds to be disbursed remains to be seen.
Among the talk of houses and schools, there is Laal Rehman, a village elder and the local imam, who wants a masjid and madrassah to be rebuilt as soon as possible. Volunteers from the Niyat Foundation are quick to offer help; but where are they to build it?
One of the three brothers, who own the land where new mosque would be built, wants it reconstructed exactly where it used to be. AC Anjum and the volunteers try to explain that the old location would be at risk again if it rains.
Eventually, after 10 minutes of coaxing and reasoning, the spot suggested by the assistant commissioner and the volunteers is agreed upon. A ripple of hope runs through the crowd: “Barkat aye gee,” [blessings will follow] everyone agrees.
With that, the imam rises. He gives the call to prayer and makes supplications, reposing hope in his faith as he stands against the backdrop of his washed-away home.
Header image: A general view of the land on which 35 homes were located within Laal Gul Goth, and which were washed away in the recent floods. — Photo: Shahzeb Ahmed