I recently spent a day as an embedded journalist. I wore no hard hat and no body armour, just a shirt and trousers. We drove along not in a tank, but an ordinary sedan.
The ‘war’ I went to see is the most urgent conflict this country faces, despite international headlines which suggest otherwise. The war I speak of is flood relief.
Accompanying the Indus Resource Centre (IRC) to Mirpurkhas, the creeping reality of winter dominates discussion. In the tent cities they have set up in the district, in partnership with UNESCO, the pressing need is for shields against the cold. Blankets and shoes are just some of the basic requirements.
The seasonal temperature is not the only problem. Winds from the north are known to cause respiratory tract infections, with children and the elderly particularly vulnerable.
Mariam Sheikh, the IRC’s Communications Officer, says there are several other factors to consider, such as child immunity to disease. Malnutrition is already a severe issue in the flood-affected areas; the coming winter will take further toll.
Indeed, according to a recent Joint Rapid Assessment by the UN, three million people are currently in need of immediate food assistance. The same reports states that over two million acres of standing crops were destroyed during the floods.
Living in dignity
The first tent city I visited, a couple of miles outside Mirpurkhas city, holds 62 tents – each one housing a family. The IRC hopes the villagers will return home soon, but even now their village is three or four feet underwater.
All 62 families are Hindus from the ‘scheduled caste’. What this means in politically incorrect language is that on the social ladder these people are less than zero. You wouldn’t know it to see them here.
The community in this camp is organised, united and, dare I say it, happy. I asked Sajad Hussain, a project manager with the IRC, why they seemed peaceful. The people are now relieved, he tells me. “They know they are saved.”
Before the tents arrived, they had been forced to fend for themselves on the dusty road next to the tent city. Sajad tells me the women would not go to the bathroom all day – because there was no bathroom (or nearby trees or bushes). They would suffer all day and only relieve themselves at night under the cover of darkness. “Even then,” Sajad says, “they would look out for the lights of cars passing by.” The IRC has now built 250 latrines in their Mirpurkhas tent cities.
At another tent city, I observed the distribution of food. NIC card numbers were diligently verified to make sure everyone got their share. There were orderly queues, a humbling decency and calm.
As always, children seem to adjust the best. Heading off with their mother or father carrying a sack containing atta, rice, daal, oil, sugar, salt, chillies, potatoes and matches, the children were eager to help, even walking along with a skip in their stride.
At the first tent city, Mariam, Sajad and IRC colleagues distributed shelter sheets, jerry cans and other items. Mariam was distraught when she realised they were four mosquito nets short, as nearby stagnant water is fertile ground for malaria and dengue. The numbers affected by the floods are in the millions, but every detail counts.
The camp also has a temporary learning centre, which is essentially a school in a tent. UNICEF has donated about 200 of these to the IRC. In another tent city, set up largely through funds from the Turkish government, I heard children in one of these centre sing ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’. The booming rendition had more soul than a thousand playgrounds.
Teaching goes on for five hours a day. Ironically, many of the kids have never actually been to school before: it has taken a natural disaster for them to receive education for the first time in their life. The IRC hopes to continue educational projects with these communities once they return home.
For now, the community’s livestock – what remains of it – occupies a narrow patch between the camp and the road. Life will move on, eventually.
Striving in the dark
The IRC’s office in Mirpurkhas is bare-bones officialdom. Behind his desk, Saleem Ahmed, the group’s district manager, told me about the difficulties the IRC faces this year. On cue, the electricity went mid-conversation.
Lack of funds has choked their effectiveness. “The reasons for low donations are disaster fatigue, the economic crisis, lack of coverage and suspicions that aid will be siphoned off in corrupt ways,” Saleem says. “The UN also has taken its time with needs assessment surveys.”
Saleem and his team are not bitter that donations are miniscule compared to last year, merely frustrated. “This is not a job. We are humanitarians,” says Sajad. Mariam adds: “We are trying to do what we can with what we have. The IRC will be there for those affected, no matter how long.” For the 6,500 children the IRC alone looks after, these words are immense consolation.
Politics has also impeded their work. Everything is political, even in a crisis. Correction: especially in a crisis.
Local authorities, it has been reported, have discriminated against some communities. Many landlords have also not been overly keen to allow their land to be used temporarily for tent cities. Saleem also says that government departments often play favourites. Plus there are the usual messy social structues to deal with: bonded labour, feudalism and sectarianism are dark forces even at the best of times.
Saleem is realistic about the work ahead. I am amazed he is not more fatalistic. “Climate change will make this happen every year,” he says. “Ninety per cent of the cotton crop is gone. The knock-on effects are only just emerging. People will go to already over-burdened cities looking for work. The social effects will be catastrophic.”
The IRC needs your help
The IRC’s remit is to “change rural lives in Pakistan”. However, the last two years have hindered their usual work as an NGO. Projects in poverty alleviation, education, health, environment and gender are still on-going, though inevitably resources have been cut as the IRC stretches every organisational sinew to do what they can for flood relief.
Most of their donations within Pakistan come from a handful of individuals. They would like this to change. As a needs-focused and unimpeachably transparent organisation, the economic climate and disaster fatigue are surely the only reasons potential donors are put off.
With relief stocks running out, the IRC’s damage assessment charts are complete, their accounts are forensic and up-to-date, and their staff are ready and waiting. Many other charities are equally equipped.
The rest, Pakistanis, is up to you.
For more information or to donate, please email [email protected]
Published in The Express Tribune, November 11th, 2011.