Refusing to budge

People in Pakistan’s most populous province of Punjab, and in the southern province of Sindh, where serious flooding could be imminent, are extremely reluctant to abandon their homes and farms and move to higher ground, as the authorities are urging them.

“This looks very bad,” said 70-year-old Jamal Ahmed perusing newspaper pictures of flood-stricken people in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP). “But me and my sons will not leave our home.”

Ahmed and his extended family live several kilometres outside the city of Multan in Punjab Province, on the banks of the River Chenab and in the geographic centre of the country. Local officials have warned them to move to escape possible floods.

“We will not leave our possessions or our cattle to go to some camp. We need to stay here and protect our water buffalo, otherwise how will we live once the waters recede?” asked Ahmed. 

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According to a 3 August update by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Sindh is “bracing for the biggest floods in 34 years”.

In the town of Sukkur on the banks of the River Indus in Sindh Province - and 450km south of Multan - local authorities have for several days been trying to persuade people to move to relief camps.

Authorities’ dilemma

This widespread reluctance to move, even in the face of mounting danger, is posing a dilemma for the authorities.

“Some villagers have been shifting, but if others continue to refuse we will need to use force,” Sumair Syed, a district administration official, told IRIN. The army and paramilitary forces are present in the area and media reports say gas and power connections have been cut in a bid to persuade people to move.

“People don’t want to leave their homes, here in Multan or elsewhere, because they know conditions at camps are usually miserable and people are treated with a lack of respect,” social worker Khadim Muhamad, 50, told IRIN. He cited the example of Cyclone Phet, which threatened coastal areas in June, and the evacuation of people from fishing villages around Karachi to makeshift camps.

“But they [the evacuees] returned home almost immediately because the conditions were inadequate, with no provision for the most basic needs,” Muhamad said, adding that the shelter offered sometimes consisted of little more than a canvas or polythene sheet stretched over stakes. “In stifling hot weather people cannot live like this,” he said.

A district administration official in the Multan area, who preferred anonymity, said if people did not move “there is bound to be death and injury. But if we force or pressurize them to move, we come in for criticism, as does the government.”

Photo: OCHA
Pakistan floods as of 3 August 2010 (See larger version of map)

Meanwhile, in KP rising water levels in the Warsak Dam, the third largest reservoir in the country, are threatening residents of the northern outskirts of Peshawar, the provincial capital, but many are refusing to be evacuated.

“We will begin forced evacuations if necessary,” Adnan Khan, a spokesperson for the provincial disaster management authority, said.

Cultural factors

Cultural factors are also influencing people’s decision not to move.

“I cannot imagine staying in a room with strangers. On TV I have seen dozens of men and women lying in one space,” said Zahida Khatoon, who lives in a village 20km from Multan.

Like many women in southern areas of Punjab Province, she has never been to school, observes strict `purdah’ (the practice of keeping a low profile and covering up to prevent women from being seen by men) and says she has never spent a night outside her own home. “Even death may be better than camp life for me,” she said.