SUKKUR, Pakistan. On the road in from the airport, the water shimmered under the moonlight as men, women and children sat in the dark, near the would-be lakeshore. During the day, river dolphins can usually be spotted in the nearby river. It sounds idyllic, you might think, but not so. This dusty and ramshackle town is at the front-line of one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters in living memory. Usually there is no water lapping up at the roadside, and the only people there would be those out for an evening snack after the daytime Ramadan fast. But since torrential monsoon rain sent the Indus River spilling onto towns and farmland the length of Pakistan, an area the size of England has been deluged.
In downtown Sukkur, I spoke to Ashraf, who said he had left his family at the outskirts, before coming into town to buy some food. “We managed to gather up some of our possessions before the waters came, but we did not have much warning. Our home is under water completely. I have enough money to feed my children for another couple of days, that is all.” Like a few more flood victims I encountered, he had to pay three times the normal price for a bus to the city, as opportunists capitalise on people’s desperation, to make a quick rupee.
Nature’s unwitting cruelty followed up, here and there, then, by man’s calculated greed. The last time a natural disaster hit this country, 80,000 people died in just thirteen seconds when an earthquake rocked Pakistani Kashmir. This time, the death-toll is much lower and the disaster is unfolding slowly over many weeks. However, the impact is vast – running the entire 1,976 mile length of the Indus River from the mountainous north of Pakistan, where that 2005 quake hit, to these flood-prone plains in the south.
Everywhere cases of diarrhea, cholera, skin diseases, as well as malaria and dengue, are growing. Almost 5 million people now have no access to clean water, an irony akin to Coleridge’s line about “water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”
Millions of acres of land remains under water, and, out of the mind-boggling 17 million thought to be affected by the floods, around 800,000 people remain beyond the reach of aidworkers or the Pakistani army. Many are cut off by the rising waters that dissolved bridges and submerged roads. This disaster seems as vast as the swollen country-long lake that the Indus River has become. That said, the real human suffering and loss can be obscured by or sanitised into mere statistics – with people’s lives traduced by the actuary-level numbers required to account for such vast destruction.
The name Sukkur is derived from the Arabic word for intense, according to some historical accounts that date the place-name to Umayyad conquerors who marched east to this region over a millennium ago. For aidworkers trying to help the displaced who are now – for want of a better word – flooding the town, the epithet seems apt. Brian Casey worked at the forefront of relief operations in Haiti after the recent earthquake and in Burma after the 2008 Cyclone Nargis – with Irish NGO GOAL. He says that the extent of the slowly-unfurling crisis in Pakistan comes close to these massive disasters – “people are hungry, people are getting sick, and we don’t know yet how much worse things will get as the water rises in places. And at the same time we have to think about how to help people rebuild homes and farms once the waters recede.”
Outside the city, Nizam Ud Din Bharchood of Pakistani charity Hands takes me to a string of ad-hoc campsites along the
highway. At one, around thirty women and children sat under trees in the dust-infused forty-degree heat. “Some of these people are here almost three weeks, without shelter, without regular food or water”, he says. “The men have gone into the city to see if they can get work somehow.”
Hands has been helping out with food and medicine since the start of the flood, and is partnering with GOAL to reach more people. Back to numbers again, and these are rising in tandem with the still-swelling waters, in an odd sort of danse macabre. 4 million Pakistanis are now homeless, and another 600,000 are threatened down-river in this southern region, meaning they might have to flee as well with two more weeks of monsoon rains possible.
When the water surged, Mohammed Ramza had less than a day to pack up with his family, and move, along with all his neighbours, to the roadside outside Sukkur. “Our homes were destroyed, we managed only to save a few animals”, he said, pointing to a half-dozen goats sitting in the shade, their ears tugged-at by a trio of giggling children, none of whom are more than five years old. Ignoring maternal admonitions to leave the animals alone, they compete to play up for the foreigner’s camera, some temporary respite from their still-unfinished ordeal.