Across Pakistan there are still marooned villages like Reikhbaghwala, a few kilometres from the overflowing River Indus in Punjab Province, where no assistance has been received in over a month.
Why that is the case is a combination of geography, the scale of the tragedy, and local politics in which powerful landowners have a major say in determining who is in need.
Densely populated Punjab has the highest number of people affected by the floods - more than 8.2 million - of which 5.3 million need help urgently. Of the province’s 36 districts, Rajanpur has been hit hardest, with 1.3 million people affected.
“We are at the end of the world,” said retired army captain Mohammed Usman, the district administrator of Rajanpur, which is wedged between the mountainous province of Balochistan to the west and Sindh in the south.
The district is a 12-hour drive from the provincial capital, Lahore. Aid workers and officials say its remoteness has meant it has not had the media coverage that might have boosted aid flows. “We are short of tents and food and still unable to access many people marooned on islands created near the Indus,” said Usman. He reckoned he still needed another 120,000 tents.
After a month perched on the roofs of their homes, hunger had driven the residents of Reikhbaghwala village to improvise a raft and cross the lake that was once their cotton fields to look for work. But so many other people are in the same situation: “There is no work and we have to beg for food,” an elderly Asha Mia told IRIN.
Even if the district administration did have the money, local suppliers cannot keep up with demand. “Tents are in short supply in Pakistan at the moment,” said Saleem Rehmat of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Out of the 8.5 million people identified to be in need of shelter in Pakistan, 1.3 million have been helped so far. “Tents have started to roll in. We are getting three flight-loads every day now but the pipeline will only help another 2.5 million people, so we are still far short,” said Rehmat. “Access and resources, including manpower, remain a huge issue.”
Capt Usman Raza, who is leading the army’s relief efforts in some of the affected villages in Rajanpur, said he has got his “friends” scouting around the countryside for tents.
The coordination headache
With the tragedy still unfolding, the number in need keeps changing, said Amjad Jamal of the World Food Programme (WFP), which has managed to reach four of the six million identified to be in need of urgent food assistance nationally at the last count. But 40 more villages were flooded in Sindh Province in the past few days. “We are deploying more choppers to get to the inaccessible areas in Sindh and Punjab,” he said.
“We desperately need a national database that all of us can refer to,” said Shabnum Sarfaraz, a medic and coordinator of the Fatima Memorial System, a national NGO which works on healthcare issues.
There was an urgent need to coordinate the response efficiently at the national level, said Sarfaraz, “so we NGOs know where to go and [who to] support. At the moment NGOs are concentrated in easily accessible areas two or three hours away from major towns and cities… Places like Rajanpur and D.G. Khan are not getting the attention they need.”
Fatima Memorial System has decided to coordinate efforts with six other organizations at the micro-level, has identified D.G. Khan as an underserviced area, and will try to provide doctors and other medical personnel.
Both the Punjab administration and UN agencies are using data from WFP’s latest Vulnerability Assessment and Mapping survey.
Officials such as Ahmed Javed Qazi, the district coordination officer from Rajanpur’s neighbouring Rahim Yar Khan District, have done everything they can to speed up the delivery of aid to the most vulnerable.
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His district wasted no time in compiling data on individual needs. “We went in as soon as we could so the figures cannot be exaggerated or tampered with later on.” A subsequent assessment will include a photograph of an aid beneficiary standing next to the remains of his house. “We have already started this process.”
Landowners in Sindh and Punjab, who have enormous influence and sit on most of the committees set up to identify vulnerable beneficiaries, can sometimes be an impediment to the smooth delivery of aid.
Residents in Reikhbaghwala village said there might be aid coming through from the government but it was probably being diverted by landowners. “They keep everything for themselves. If you bring any aid for us make sure you give it to us directly,” one of the villagers said.
“We have no choice. They are accessible and know the area and the residents,” explained Capt Raza. But the needy individuals identified by the landlords “often turn out to be the landlords’ relatives,” he said, grinning.
Syed Tahir Arfat of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, a member of the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, said: “You just have to humour these guys to ensure you don’t have problems while implementing projects.”
Mistrust between villagers and landlords runs deep. Villagers have reported landlords allegedly diverting water onto tenant farmers’ fields to save their own.
IOM’s Rehmat and WFP’s Jamal said their organizations draw up their own lists of beneficiaries.
Safe to return?
The water has begun receding in some parts of Punjab. The government is keen for people to return to their homes, and the army has begun distributing an early recovery pack including a tent and one month’s food rations to those promising to return.
But is it safe to return? NGOs and even some local administration officials admit that the decision to resettle the displaced in their original homes along the river needs to be thought through. “How do we know that their homes will not be flooded again?” asked Fatima Memorial System chairperson Shahima Rehman.
Babar Aman, an official from Rahim Yar Khan District, said the government “should draw up legislation to ban people from settling close to the bank [of the Indus] and provide alternative land,” adding hastily, “but that is my personal opinion.”