Footprints: SURVIVING ON A SLIVER OF LAND

Published October 5, 2022
FLOOD victims hardly have space to keep their belongings dry.—Umair Ali
FLOOD victims hardly have space to keep their belongings dry.—Umair Ali

LINED on both sides by date palms, the single carriageway Mehran Highway narrows noticeably as you approach Thari Mirwah from Nawabshah. Fleeing from the recent floods, the residents of several nearby villages had sought safety along its shoulders. They now crowd its lanes.

They are living riskily. With the National Highway between Sukkur and Moro badly affected since the floods, the Mehran Highway has gotten busy as passenger coaches and other vehicles use it to bypass blockages. However, the survivors have few other options. Land on both sides of the highway is submerged. There are not enough public buildings where they can stay, and they cannot return to their villages. The women and children use ‘taee’ — large pans normally used for cooking — as makeshift boats. They use them to return to their submerged homes and salvage what they can.

“I managed to save some grain. We have been staying here for the last two months,” explains Abid Shar, who hails from the Akri area of Khairpur district’s Thari Mirwah taluka. Shar’s house collapsed in the floods. He has found work in a cotton ginning factory to feed his family.

As Abid recounts his experiences, Afzal Shar approaches to share his grievances. “At least you came to us. Nobody comes here to see what we are going through and how terrible it is.” Afzal says the living conditions have deprived many of sleep. “We pass the nights awake to avoid any further tragedy,” he says.

Local traders are capitalising on their misery. Afzal recently had to part with a goat in exchange for just Rs5,000. The animal, he believes, should have fetched at least Rs20,000 in better days. Another survivor, Paryal Lashari, says he was forced to sell his goat for Rs7,000 against its actual price of Rs20,000. The livestock traders in the Karki area are operating as a cartel and denying the sellers fair prices, the men complain.

Khairpur, a former princely state ruled by the Talpur dynasty, was among the districts worst affected by the 2022 floods. Weeks after the worst of the disaster, local authorities still do not know what to do about the stagnating floodwater.

The drainage of water from Khairpur’s rural areas was the responsibility of the Irrigation Department’s Development Region-I. Its chief engineer was recently transferred for his inability to deliver.

“The water is trapped in depressions and will need to be pumped from rural areas that do not have proper drainage,” explains the new but acting Chief Engineer, Mansoor Memon. “We have doubled the capacity of pumping stations from 750 cusecs to 1,325 cusecs per day where drainage network exists.”

He said 23,000 acres of land had been drained of water over the last nine days — an improvement from 3,000-5,000 acres around a week ago.

Meanwhile, internally displaced persons (IDPs) are worried about the approaching winter. Life will get extremely difficult if they are forced to keep living along the road.

“The winter is approaching fast. We have children too,” worries Amin Shar. He lives near the submerged Qadir Dino Shar village. Farmers, big or small, cultivate wheat in this area between the date plantations. The date growers say they lost 80-90 per cent of their crop as the torrential rains coincided with the harvesting season, which starts in June.

For Amin, the number one priority is the drainage of water. Amin feared he would not be able to sow wheat for the next season if his fields remained submerged. “Just clear the villages of water, as it serves as a hatchery for mosquitoes. We have too many cases of malaria [already],” he says.

Back in urban Khairpur and Gambat, the urban areas have not fared any better. Those living within the city limits complain of poor living conditions and prevalent health hazards.

The water standing around the city is now turning black and yellow. “Our children keep falling in the water, and we keep pulling them out,” says Zubaida Katohar, who lives in the Jamali village of Khairpur city. It is surrounded by contaminated water.

Using a tarpaulin as an improvised tent, Zubaida says she waits for the traffic to drop after midnight before she can go to sleep. She’s had enough of the mosquitos. “Toba hey in machharon sey,” she snaps.

The road to village Jamali divides the land. The date plantations on both sides are submerged. “Should I step inside the water so you can get an idea of its depth?” quips a passing villager.

“Please do something to drain the water,” pleads Farida Katohar. Elderly Ms Gulabi agrees with her, saying it will be enough for her if the water is drained out. The women of the area lost their daily wage work when the date crop was lost. They are now working as domestic helpers to eke out a living.

The area MNA, Dr Nafisa Shah, is also upset. “Winter is upon us. There will be another disaster if we do not drain out the water. We have ten days till the Rohri Canal [of Sukkur barrage] brings water for the Rabi crop.” She fears the canal will no longer accept the water pumped from the areas in Khairpur if that window passes.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2022

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