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Flood response: Too slow, too little

September 23, 2011

A woman pulls a goat as she wades out of the flood waters in the Badin district of Pakistan's Sindh province September 22, 2011. – Reuters Photo

Still reeling from last year’s catastrophic floods, as the recent cycle of inundation unfolds before the world, a month since angry waters ravaged most of Sindh province, the United Nations and the Pakistani government formally launched an international appeal for US $ 345.9 million

Both the Pakistan government and the international humanitarian organisations have been blamed for tardy response to help urgently needed by eight million affected people.

“The problem is huge and I fail to understand why it took the resource-stretched government so long to seek help,” asked Mohammad Khan Samoon, director of Badin Development and Research Organisation, a local non-governmental organisation, working in Badin district.

“When international agencies are involved they first carry out assessments before reports are sent to their headquarters and money released. All this takes time. Precious time could have been saved had we been more prepared with data and provided relief to people in a more systematic manner. Everything is left for the eleventh hour and thus management is adhoc. We have not learnt anything from last year.” Samoon says, adding that a commission should be set up which should take to task all those who were slumbering while the water levels rose.

Surrounded by waist-high water and rising, many of the 6,000 or so once bustling villages in the district of Badin, in Sindh province, are today ghost towns. Others have been washed out completely by the raging flood waters. Stories of loss, hopelessness, death and disease stalk the residents many of whom have just managed to reach dryland with nothing but the clothes on their back.

Last year, Badin district, which had remained unscathed, had provided refuge to thousands; this year more than 800,000 of its own people have come in the eye of the storm.

As the waters refused to ebb, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, appealed for international assistance in a televised address late on Saturday. “International organisations and the world community should focus their attention on the affected people,” Gilani had said. He has called off his US trip where he was to address the

UN General Assembly saying he personally wanted to “supervise ongoing relief efforts in flood-hit areas of Sindh”.

In a painful playback of last year, when almost a fifth of Pakistan was ravaged by the deluge which not only affected 21 million people but also crippled the economy of the South Asian nuclear state, this year’s deluge has just affected Sindh.

“The impact of this year's disaster is far worse than last year not because of the number of people suffering but because of the sheer impact and devastation on a population severely affected by last year's mega- flood. Millions hit this year are those who had lost almost everything during last year's flood and now have literally nothing to live on. People have lost their crops, livestock and homes for a second time around. The resilience of Pakistanis has been pushed over the edge by two floods in a row,” said Mubashir Akram, spokesperson for UK-based charity Oxfam.

“Why suffer second year in a row when the whole world provided crucial assistance to Pakistan and emphasised to improve the disaster coping mechanisms by implementing the modern concepts of disaster risk reduction (DRR)?” he asked.

According to Akram, by taking measures detailed in the DRR, all that was required was spending a paltry US 30 million dollars then thus saving billions of dollars in losses now.

The real issue is the exhaustive DRR framework that had been painstakingly developed by experts had not been implemented the way these should have been, he concluded.

Sources working in the district government in Badin, requesting anonymity, acknowledged that the relief has come too late, too little and distribution is far from transparent. They say “political favouritsm” remains a hallmark of management and distribution of relief goods.

Absolving itself from all blame, Sardar Sarfaraz, director of Pakistan Meteorological Department, in Karachi, said alarm bells had been rung well in time. “We had given early warning of heavy spells well in time to all stakeholders if only they had heeded.”

Last year the met office had come under severe criticism for not doing its job properly. “That’s not true,” said Sarfaraz, who heads the tropical cyclone warning centre, adding: “We had sent warnings well in advance even last year but were told our language was too technical and could not be translated into damage entailed.”

Akram believes the coordination gap between the relevant and disaster/flood related agencies is huge. “If the met office had provided good weather intelligence well before in time, then why were their warnings not paid any attention to? The horizontal and vertical integration between the disaster management authorities must be improved if future disasters need to be tackled efficiently,” he said.

According to the National Disaster Management Authority, 369 people have died, 1.4 million homes affected (of which over 500,000 have been completed destroyed) and some 2 million acres of crops destroyed. Seven of the 23 districts of Sindh have been severely affected and include Badin, Nawabshah, Mirpurkhas, Sanghar, Umerkot, Tharparkar and Tando Allahyar.

The government has set up over 3,000 relief camps for 716, 698 people. But many families are seen camping out on embankments and roadsides under open sky under.

Makeshift huts or tents are seen erected on roadsides as you near Badin city. The place is strewn with their few worldly belongings – an odd cooking utensil, some managed to salvage their rope beds and pedestal fans too. Buffalos, goats, donkeys and even hens are seen tied to their homes.

While women are busy carrying out some chores or the other, men are usually found doing absolutely nothing, just idling or resting.

Usually children are making the most of this free time – swimming in nearby pools of stagnant water oblivious to the dangers of catching some water-borne disease or being bitten by a snake, or making up games from pebbles and twigs.

The vagaries of nature have compounded the woes of the displaced. Already seven thousand people have been bitten by snakes and the standing water is a cauldron for public health issues.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said that up to 2.5 million children have been affected by severe monsoon floods with many still recovering from the last year’s floods. “More help must reach them fast before the situation worsens,” it warned.

A survey conducted by the Sindh government last year, with support from Unicef, revealed a grave nutritional crisis among children. With an estimated 90,000 under-five children malnourished, the survey report published in January this year showed a global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate of 23.1 percent in children aged six months to five years old in northern Sindh and 21.2 percent in southern Sindh.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist.

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