Pakistan is no stranger to floods. The country has experienced frequent catastrophic flooding since 1950, according to the Flood Commission Report 2020, that at best has either left everything wet or at worst washed away both homes and crops. More than once, these floods have turned violentâ€”the flooding of 2010 took away at least 1700 lives and affected more than 20 million people.
And yet, the deluge of 2010 is incomparable to the floods of 2022 in the country.
“The scale alone was massive and unexpected,” says Dr. Hafeez Ur Rehman, the current president of the renowned Pakistani NGO, Al-Khidmat Foundation. And there is evidence to this claim— the floods of summer 2022 have displaced a total of 33 million people. A majority of them are impoverished or subsistence farmers.
Nearly a third of Pakistan was flooded; many places were engulfed by the water for weeks on end. Over 16000 km of roads and 15 bridges were destroyed. And in Sindh alone, many parts were covered with water about 15 to 20 feet deep. Cutting off all access to coming and going for anybody. In short, mobility was a trial.
“It was so complicated this time. Volunteer helpers and NGOs from the main cities were scrambling to find ways to reach out to the flooded areas. And the water didn’t leave at once,” explains Sahar Baloch, a journalist for BBC Urdu. She had been on the ground reporting on the catastrophe and had seen how the roads being cut off had vexed everyone.
“Volunteer workers and helpers were ready to go help (the flood-affectees). But the situation was bad. The waters in Balochistan took around six months to recede. Diversions and cuts were made but they weren’t successful. The water only caused more destruction. Landa Puul was destroyed. And even the main highways broke down.”
In such a situation, everyone involved in the rescue efforts had to come up with ways to bypass all the water, which repeatedly became a challenge. “People traveled on boats to reach out to the affected areas in Sindh. And even getting that many boats became a problem,” explains Maaz Tanveer, Communications Manager at HANDS, another Pakistani NGO.
“The armed forces first used helicopters to give initial aid to Balochistan and later on we managed to reach there with them using their (army) vehicles. For Sindh, since all roads were engulfed with floodwaters, we had to use boats to reach out. And we had to be careful with how much we can take along with us as there was only so much space to carry items.”
Wherever possible, items were delivered through military trucks. “Every aid product was delivered through the convoy system,” says Sahar. This was to ensure that no one would rob the products and that aid was delivered safely. Makeshift rafts were also used to transport aid and rescue people from their homes. And even in these rafts, there was not enough room to take everything.
Unlike the 2010 floods, there were not that many organizations that were actively taking part in the rescue operations this time. The ones who were able to carry out their operations were those who had their own networks. Al-Khidmat and HANDS were such organizations. “We have branches and volunteer workers in the affected places. For us, it was easier to coordinate our aid programmes. We would be able to provide what was needed for each area and act accordingly. Food, medicines, medical camps, we were able to arrange it all thanks to our people stationed there.”
And it wasn’t just these major NGOs. Volunteer groups and community workers also took part in assisting aid, especially those who were situated in these areas. “In Balochistan, community workers would make sure that people were getting the food and medicines they needed. These people would only accept assistance from those they trusted. Since the road network, there is very patchy, they knew where and how to go from place to place,” says Maryam Jamali, cofounder of Madat Balochistan.
In Balochistan specifically, the heavy lifting in providing aid was mostly done by these community workers. NGOs came a little later in providing assistance.
It is important that most major assistance came from organizations like UNICEF and the WHO, while the government remained absent. “Provincial disaster organizations are the first to coordinate and take action,” explains Maaz. “But we didn’t see any action on their part. Some government officials did help out. But there was little response, overall.”
And it was not just the aid workers and NGOs who had a hard time traveling to these areas. The people affected by the floods had an even more troubling time moving about. They could not afford to migrate to the big cities, nor did they want to lose their homes. “Many of the Baloch people have never ventured outside of their villages. They don’t have the money or the means to travel,” explained Maryam. “Balochistan is not a place that has as many developed cities or facilities. So people just stay home. Even if their homes are destroyed.”
During this catastrophe, many of them stayed on their rooftops or near canal banks until the water receded. But their homes and crops had been wiped out, and traveling was largely unaffordable. Women and girls were additionally affected by their lack of mobility.
“Many in those areas did not have access to proper sanitary products and would not move around otherwise. And a lot of women were still ailing from giving birth to newborns and had their own health problems. So a lot of women stayed back. They were in no condition to move to begin with,” says Bushra Mahnoor from Mahwari Justice, a volunteer group providing sanitary products for the women and girls there.
According to Ibrahim Buriro, another volunteer worker in Sindh whose village got flooded, people were sitting on the roads, full of anguish over what had taken place. “Depression had spiked there. And honestly, anyone who lost their homes like that would be depressed about themselves.”
While the number of displaced persons is high, the mass migration that experts have predicted did not happen at once. “Not every person abandoned their homes. Many of them are wary of these relief camps as they aren’t considered safe or appropriate for their women,” says Maaz. Sindh had some people flocking toward the main cities and relief camps, but not everyone went there.
“People weren’t willing to make that trip since they were unsure if proper facilities would be there. And for women, there was this worry of privacy. What if the camps didn’t have women-only toilets?” Ibrahim explained. The ones who did leave would put one family member to safeguard the house. But the families would return eventually. Migrants did not stay too long for fear that their homes would be taken over, according to Sahar.
Nowadays, aid can be delivered to flood-affected areas as the water has mostly receded. Roads are once again accessible for travel. The rehabilitation process has been started. But there is still this worry that the floods will come back and cut off all transport access once again.