On the road in northern Sindh, Pakistan – Dirty, tired and bedraggled, Imran beckons us over to the womenwho fled their village. They came thirty miles on foot only to spend almost three weeks here in the dead heat at this makeshift camp outside Sukkur in southern Pakistan.
“Take some photographs”, he implores. “You sure this is OK?”, I reply, our conversation translated from Sindhi to English and back again by Nizam Ud Din Bharchood, a long time charity worker for Hands, a NGO based in southern Pakistan. “Go ahead, he insists!”, assured Nizam.
Under normal circumstances, foreigners cannot take photos of women or girls in Pakistan, but Imran waives this, showing a canny insight into how best to raise awareness about his people’s plight. The ladies, adorned in their assorted pinks, greens and orange veils, clasp their children close and sit atop a rusted old bed, one of the few possessions they managed to carry from one of their houses.
Photo taken, Imran tells me more about their plight. “We are here twenty days now, without any shelter and only a little food”. That is some ordeal, for women and small children. One woman pipes up, unsolicited. “Some people dropped off food here and we give thanks for that”, she said. “But it was done in a disrespectful way – they just threw it off the back of a truck, like they were feeding animals”.
Nizam says that so many people need help, it is impossible to meet needs even now, four weeks since the Indus first spilled over the levees and onto people’s land, over people’s homes and into people’s lives. “Many are angry and upset, that is why that lady is so unusually outspoken”, he opined.
With well-established local links and networks in the vast, agriculture-dominated rural Sindh province – where the now-flooded Indus empties into the sea – Hands is well-placed not only to deliver aid, but also to help well-funded foreign humanitarian organisations gain access to where needs are greatest, quickly and effectively.
A clinic has been set up nearby, in Adhitakri, a rock-strewn wasteland 10 miles outside Sukkur. With cases of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid on the rise, and people reporting skin infections and diarrhea, a lack of healthcare threatens to undermine aid efforts in areas like food and shelter provision. The floods have destroyed 400 clinics or hospitals country-wide, so it is time for aidworkers to get hands-on.
However with or without aid, people here are resolute, and are helping themselves as best they can. All along the roads through the province,
thousands are on the move with their few possessions, many stop with their families wherever they can find a dry patch of ground or shelter. Others are better-off, resting in camps run by the Pakistani authorities or by the UN and NGOs, many of whom are funded by USAID in a land where America is sometimes viewed with suspicion, sometimes with grudging admiration and sometimes with outright hatred. Just ask USAID chief Raj Shah, who says he was threatened by militants at a camp for displaced people just down the road from here, in Sukkur in Sindh Province, on Wednesday last week.
Later on, at Shahdad Kot, about a two hour drive away, I meet volunteers from the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), who say their organisation has conducted thousands of rescue operations across the ever-widening flood waters.
“Today we took 89 families from the villages and farms”, said Jawad, a volunteer with PFF, as he points across the rice paddies to a spot on the horizon. Only now the cropland around the villages and farms is six feet under water, and we are standing on a hastily-piled dyke made of rock, sand and topsoil.
At our feet the water cascades over the hard-shoulder of what was a road running through the farmland, along which the farmers would ordinarily drive their gaudily-decorated tractors and dirt-encrusted carts, towed by donkey or camel. Now their only way out is by boat.
However, the water in the southern reaches of Sindh province – the deep south of Pakistan where the almost-2000 mile Indus empties into the Arabian Sea – is continuing to rise. An One million more people have to vacate areas under new threat, just west of Karachi, as the flooded river, seemingly-immovable, meets the irresistible sea. With high tide, there is nowhere for the water to go, but sideways, over the dykes and levees, before covering more homes and land. This means an estimated total of six million people are now homeless due to the flood.
For aid workers, it is a massive challenge, riven with dilemmas. Given that so much infrastructure has been, well, washed away, it is difficult to know how to get shelter to people and/or how to get people to shelter? How to stop the spread of cholera, typhoid, malaria – while planning how to get 4 million homeless people back to their homes and land once the waters recede. It all brings to mind Martin Luther King’s line that “we must build dykes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”Show