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PAKISTAN: Focus on aftermath of floods in Sindh

BADIN, 13 August 2003 (IRIN) - An old woman remonstrated angrily inside the district administration’s headquarters in Badin town in the southern province of Sindh. "We don’t have any food at home and we’ve come from very far away," Khadijah Bibi told a government official, speaking in Sindhi, her eyes brimming with tears. "And we’re just four old women; we don’t have a man to keep on sending back and forth to help you verify if we haven’t received your supplies already."

Dozens of people milled around outside the door to the District Coordination Officer’s (DCO) office, as big Bedford trucks and smaller four-wheel-drive vehicles, parked in rows along a long approach road to the office, were being reversed to the steps to be loaded with sacks of relief goods, stacked in piles up to 10 feet high, both inside and outside the building’s heavily guarded entrance.

"I can’t go away. I’ve already been travelling since the early morning; it took us hours to get here. We don’t have the energy to keep on coming and going. We haven’t eaten properly for three days," Khadijah Bibi told IRIN after being let into the DCO’s office. She threw one end of her colourful Sindhi shawl back, as if in a sublime gesture of defiance.

"They want to make sure we’re not trying to get more than our share," she maintained, sitting down suddenly to massage her knees. "People have done that, you know. They were in relief camps, they went home, were given food, and they tried to get more. So these people try to make sure nobody’s lying about the help they’ve got. But I’m not lying," she asserted.

OVERALL SCENARIO

Khadijah Bibi’s predicament is symptomatic of the overall scenario the badly traumatised population of Badin, a district about 350 km northeast of the port city of Karachi, faces.

Nearly 500,000 people in this district alone were left stranded, homeless or ill, after the highest rainfalls Sindh has received in a decade inundated huge tracts of land across the rural landscape. Another 350,000 are said to have been similarly affected in the province’s other districts, as well as in neighbouring Balochistan Province.



Relief goods stacked outside the district administration's office in Badin


An official count sets the death toll at nearly 200, although relief workers from NGOs, which rallied to the cause after the provincial government declared a state of emergency soon after the heavens opened, privately estimate the true number to be more than 300.

On Wednesday, a hand-out from the Sindh government’s special relief commission estimated the number of villages affected, damaged or destroyed across the province at nearly 3,500; the crop area affected was said to total almost 350,000 acres (about 141,700 ha).

In Badin, already one of the poorest districts in a province which saw its coastal areas ravaged by a devastating cyclone in early 1999, a breached canal compounded problems by submerging houses, with the result that many people had to spend days on rooftops, with others said to have climbed trees to await rescue. Most had survived on a few mouthfuls of food, forced to sip contaminated water to avoid dying of dehydration, health workers said.

The problems continued to increase for the beleaguered provincial government, even as aid agencies overcame an understandably slow assessment of what eventually turned out to be the worst humanitarian disaster in Pakistan’s history, and began offering assistance in cash and kind, all gratefully accepted. Then, once the floodwaters were seen to be receding, the focus shifted from initial rescue and salvage operations to providing the thousands housed in dozens of relief camps set up by the administration with medical help and rehabilitation assistance.

"It is apparent to me that the local authorities acted very swiftly and effectively, coordinating their rescue operations in a way that saved, I think, thousands and thousands of human lives. These are activities that took place within practically hours of the onset of torrential rains, some of them in the night, in darkness," the representative of the United Nations in Pakistan, Onder Yucer, told IRIN in the capital, Islamabad.

"The tragedy in terms of human lives lost would have been far worse had it not been for a very prompt national response in saving lives at the local level," he added, pointing to "effective and successful rescue operations mounted by the army, the police and the local authorities".

The World Food Programme is spending US $200,000 on flood aid comprising 400 mt of wheat flour and 100 mt of vegetable oil cover the immediate needs of 250,000 people for up to three weeks. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is supplying oral rehydration kits, water purification tablets and jerry cans, and will conduct an assessment to determine its longer-term response. UNFPA is supplying medical supplies.

LACK OF FOOD AS EPIDEMICS FEARED

Once the rains ended, however, it was time to take stock of a situation which appeared to worsen by the day, even as the local population waited for the floodwaters to recede. Corpses and carcasses were spotted in waters accessible to neither divers nor boats, giving rise to serious health concerns, relief and health workers said.

A man soldiers through knee-deep water near a hamlet completely surrounded by floodwater


By Tuesday, the waters had receded enough to make journeys possible to areas in Badin which had recently been inaccessible by road, but some main thoroughfares remained partly submerged. Poor local people, having lost their little mud-and-thatch homes, lined main roads, raising their hands in mute appeals for help whenever an aid vehicle approached. Others, having managed to salvage a few belongings and beds, had set up temporary residence on roadsides.

Apart from a shortage of food, another big problem affecting locals faced was the lack of clean water, a district health official said. "We can only provide medicines and medical help; we cannot provide fresh, clean water," the Executive District Officer, Health, Mir Ahmed Ali Talpur, told IRIN at his Badin headquarters, adding that megaphones had been used to warn people against drinking available water without first boiling it.

The number of camps in Badin district had dwindled to 27 by Tuesday, down from 91 in the week after the deluge started, with thousands of people opting to return to what used to be their homes to try and pick up the pieces, he added.

"Fresh water shortage could cause illnesses on a widespread scale. The population is still at major risk," Dr Siddiq Soomro, the medical superintendent of a local hospital in Golarchi, a Badin subdistrict, told IRIN.

"Rehabilitation will be a major issue. People will make their own living, but we have to assist them. Apart from the medical help we are trying to give them, they need food, they need rations," he said.

ACTION TO AVERT FOOD SHORTAGE

Maj Sanaullah Siddiq, a member of a special army relief unit in Badin, told IRIN that the army, which had used helicopters and naval assistance in trying to pluck people out of raging waters when the rains began, later dropped food to others who could not, or chose not to leave their homes, was now trying to ensure that a food shortage did not occur.

"We are receiving most of the aid supplies that are being sent by the aid organisations, including medicines and food," he said, adding that the problem now was to deliver the aid. "We want to make sure that supplies destined for these people actually end up with these people. So we have monitoring teams that tour areas where the supplies we provide to the district administration were said to have been delivered," he explained, adding that the monitoring teams’ reports would help the army relief unit to detect any anomalies and respond appropriately.

UNHYGIENIC CONDITIONS

"It is the illnesses that we are fearing now, the epidemics that are likely," he stressed. At a primary school in Badin town, temporarily being used as a relief camp, it was easy to see why local authorities fear such outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid, malaria, hepatitis A, conjunctivitis, skin infection and gastroenteris.

The small building housed over 35 families totalling 200 people in the immediate aftermath of the floods. Now, only eight families remain, but in conditions anything but hygienic. A few feet away from where a young woman sat baking chapattis, a child was splashing in a bath of stinking, tepid water, with swarms of flies buzzing around human faeces lying in the open nearby.

In the open fields, still swamped by water sometimes up to six or seven feet deep, waste-water from the port city of Karachi had mixed with floodwaters, an official in Badin’s health department, Dr Soomar Khoso, told IRIN. "This disaster is not only because of the rains: it is also because of the drain-water coming out of... the main outlet for Karachi’s waste," he said.

Even as he spoke, an army NCO entered to say that his monitoring team had passed through a village near Badin town, where the entire community appeared to be sick with gastroenteritis. "Half of them have fever," he said.

At a health centre in Kadhan, a small community about half-an-hour’s drive away from Badin town, a young woman waited nervously for her turn with the doctor, an infant clutching at his mother’s bosom. "He has diarrhoea," she whispered, tearfully, rising quickly to her feet as her name was called.

"Yes, we do expect an epidemic of some sort or the other," Dr Karim Buksh, a doctor at the health centre, told IRIN. "There’s no provision for clean water and we’ve already had complaints of high-grade fever, gastroenteritic illnesses, which are increasing, with malaria also threatening us."

Dr Asif Aslam, a UNICEF official, told IRIN in Karachi that women and children were most especially at risk from the continued threat of illnesses the district, considered to be the poorest in Sindh. "And now that we seem to be coming to terms with the flood situation and the medical treatment of locals, as well as their rehabilitation, it’s time to brace ourselves for the next problem: poverty."









Theme (s): Natural Disasters,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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