October issue 2011
Sindh Floods 2011: History Repeats Itself
Nothing hits one more than the phrase ‘water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,’ when passing through those parts of Sindh hit by the monsoon rains that started in August and laid to waste most of the province within just a couple of weeks. What makes people angry though is the fact that it needn’t have been so. Yes, the region received unprecedented rainfall, but the disaster that followed was more man’s doing than nature’s.
Last year, when I joined a humanitarian organisation working for the rehabilitation of the 2010 flood victims, I visited interior Sindh — the Thatta, Sujawal side to be specific — where I saw the despair, the inundated fields, collapsed houses and make-shift shelters. Over the course of that one year, during repeated visits to the area, I was witness to the resilience that is part of the DNA of all Pakistanis: bit by bit, straw by straw, the affectees picked up the pieces and despite the tremendous losses they suffered, I saw them build thatch and bamboo huts, and tend their lands wherever the water had drained or dried out. Come winter and there were miles and miles of huge sunflowers on both sides of the road.
By the time summer came that year, the entire drive was framed with lush green fields and newly built poultry farms showing signs of return to normalcy. But then came the rains, and what has happened since then is a burgeoning disaster whose scale has grown by the day — and not just because we decided to ignore the monsoon alert issued by the Met office.
The recent devastation in 2011 was a classic case of “we learn from history that we never learn from history.” Being part of the humanitarian organisation’s network, we were privy to the detailed plan prepared by PDMA (Provincial Disaster Management Authority) to combat any impending natural disaster and humanitarian crisis. The draft was impressive and comprehensive, right down to the number of “de-watering” pumps required in each union council. Impressed, we made our own preparation by getting ready hampers of food and hygiene items in case of sudden need. And thank God we did, because as soon as the rains struck, we were off to distribute them the very next morning to the flood IDPs of last year, who lived in make-shift settlements on government land, but in low-lying areas.
This, however, was just the beginning. The very next day we heard reports of breaches in the saline water drains in Jati, so off we went again. By the time the district government was swinging into action, shifting the displaced in schools, education became an early casualty in these areas where schools had only just opened after the summer holidays. While these efforts were underway, Badin was hit — and what a heart-breaking sight it was…
All fields inundated and standing crops of cotton, rice, sugar cane and fodder destroyed; millions of rupees worth of fish, fish seeds and feed out of the fish ponds and into the fields; stored grain awash in flood waters; and people living on the roadside as roads were the only higher ground. Even parts of the city were inundated, including government buildings. The displaced were in a pitiable condition; sitting on charpoys in water-logged grounds, wading through dirty water to get to the relief distribution points, they and their children’s skins was showing signs of infection because of the dirty water.
On subsequent days, more and more breaches were made in Tando Mohammad Khan, Mirpurkhas, Mithi, Kunri, and soon most of lower Sindh was in the grip of a disaster that turned the lives of over eight million people upside down. The scale of this flood was bigger than the 2010 floods in terms of damage to one province.
So where were the NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) and PDMA? When these organisations finally shuffled to their feet, it was a case of too little, too late. People were marooned in villages that became inaccessible to even the relief agencies as the roads were washed away. Once again, it was up to the Pakistani marines, navy, army and their resources of boats, helicopters and hovercrafts that were deployed to reach the affectees, or to transport relief to them. Boats from the fishermen community also were utilised in a similar manner.
Major NGOs tied up with local on-the-ground community-based organisations to provide relief, something which is becoming increasingly difficult to do by the day due to cases of rioting and looting, not just by criminal elements but also by those who were desperate due to hunger and deprivation. Early on, there were allegations of corruption and hoarding, and talking to the displaced revealed a common thread: the breaches were due to either poor maintenance or the intent of landlords to save their lands and houses by diverting gushing floodwater towards the lands of poor farmers — just like they did last year.
Even in relief distribution, there was profiling of ‘ours’ and ‘their’ people on political grounds, and reports of minority communities being marginalised also made their way into print. The district government staff was stretched thin as, being local residents, they too had to grapple with inundated houses, lack of supplies, and disease and death in the family and community. Despite this, they were the only ones, other than the army, navy and the marines, who were best placed to know the actual location of the affected persons and had their true-needs assessment data.
It is a pity that the lack of trust in the official machinery exposed many NGOs who didn’t seek government assistance to the risk of duplication of work, or that they were not able to reach those in the far-flung areas that were really needy. Even security issues could be addressed through the government instead of risking the looting of an entire relief convoy going in unaccompanied. But why is there mention of only NGOs and COs? Where were the international relief agencies? Well, they were all right here, just waiting to come forward, but they could not do so until the Sindh Government finally realised that it was beyond its capacity to deal with the disaster.
The call for help went out three weeks after it had become apparent that the calamity was of disastrous proportions, and that is when UN and other agencies swung into action. The UN and its humanitarian partners asked donors to fund a $357 million rapid response plan to support efforts by the Pakistan government to respond to the needs of those affected by the floods. However, to our horror, we learned that the millions transferred to NDMA’s account during last year’s floods, were still lying unused. Now if that didn’t dent the fundraising appeal made by the PM who, yet again, visited fake relief camps in Badin, what did? No wonder then that one saw groups of friends getting together to take relief supplies rather than entrusting the government to allocate their money efficiently.
But, it must be kept it mind that whoever is helping must be prepared to be there for the long haul. Food, dry ration, clothes, shoes and shelter may have been among the initial needs, especially in the early days when there was no let-up in rain, however, the standing water brings with it its own set of diseases: gastrointestinal problems, malaria, as well as skin and eye ailments are rampant. Safe disposal of the animal carcasses is imperative to minimise the spread of disease. There is an urgent need for the arrangement of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. Everyone needs medical cover. Women are giving birth lying out in the open, on the roadside. Inundated fields are denying the dead a decent burial space. And the floodwater isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Despite the annual allocation of funds, the drains were not desilted causing the water to spill over to adjoining fields that were already being filled by the unprecedented rain. Then there was the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) which has been cited as the biggest culprit due to its design fault, pointed out by environmentalists at the time it was made, though never rectified, which resulted in the back flow of water instead of allowing the water to drain into the sea. But that was just the water that was supposed to have come from upstream and from the smaller drains falling into it.
The case for Badin was even more tragic, as explained by a local wadera. Infrastructure projects, such as roads, were built in a manner that they crisscrossed the district. However, as all the roads were on higher ground, the adjoining fields became low ground bowls from where there was no place for the water to drain out. Even dewatering would simply mean pumping it from one field to the other until the drains are completely empty and the water can be diverted from there. This is likely to take more than a couple of months, which means that the farmers, even if they are able to go back to their lands, will not be able to till it to prepare it for the next crop, i.e. for another two seasons.
What one must bear in mind is that it isn’t just the hari who suffers in such a situation. The bigger the landlord, the greater his loss. According to one local landlord, he has lost all his investment and lost the once-in-a-year opportunity to see the returns on that investment. He goes on to explain that everything in a rural set up is dependent on the income that comes in at the end of the season: a daughter’s wedding, repair of the house, a new tractor, or anything else. This applies not just to him but also his haris, who still have to be cared for by him.
Without the waiver of taxes and soft loans, there is no way these landowners will be able to get back on their feet, and if they do not, the peasants working on their fields will not be able to do so either. So, the government and the aid-providers need to think and plan beyond the food hampers. They will need to give agricultural inputs like fertilisers and seeds and provide assistance on a long-term basis. What is also imperative is that if there is a next time around, then we need to be better prepared to deal with natural disasters, which must not be exacerbated by man. The changing weather pattern is an indication of climate change, and adaptive measures need to be taken to cope with it through efficient management.
You can revisit the challenges, mistakes and successes of the 2010 flood response here.