Pakistan floods: Why Islamabad is slow to implement lessons from last year

A year after historic Pakistan floods left hundreds of thousands homeless, Islamabad's slow response to new floods has prompted a UN appeal.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters
Family members displaced by floods took shelter at a makeshift camp in Badin District in Pakistan’s Sindh Province Sept. 14. Floods this year have destroyed or damaged 1.2 million homes.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Since their small village was swept away recently by devastating floods in southern Pakistan, Younis Malkani, his wife, and their three children have found shelter on a dune.

"We don't have drinking water and there's not enough food to feed the children," says the farmer, who has a weather-beaten face and torn clothes. After trekking barefoot for miles through chest-deep floodwater to save his family he now has trouble walking.

His neighbor, Ghulam Rasool, says he didn't have time to save any possessions – focusing instead on rescuing his ailing wife. "When our village drowned, we could not collect anything. I put her on my back, brought her to the town, but there was nothing there either," he says. "We were dying of hunger and thirst and there is no medicine."

Mr. Malkani and Mr. Rasool hail from the remote village of Hyat Khaskheli in Badin District, where torrential rains that began in August have triggered a deluge that has affected at least 7.5 million people like them.

The latest flooding is a blow to a region that is still trying to recover from last summer's floods. The 2010 flood disaster, the worst the country had ever seen, caught the government off guard; its response this year shows a failure to apply lessons learned. Experts chalk it up to the fact that the government misjudged flood warnings and red tape delayed it from reaching out to international aid agencies for help.

Locals are less circumspect in their criticism: They blame incompetent and ill-equipped local administration in the affected areas resulting in the unnecessary delays. They also say the drainage system, known as LBOD and built with the help of the World Bank more than 15 years ago, has caused the most damage with breaches and overflow. They call the canal that runs through Sindh Province "the poisonous dragon."

"The government has not learned the lesson from last year's death and destruction. The cash crops of cotton, sugar cane, [and] fruit, and vegetable farms have been wiped out," says Hyderabad-based Jami Chandio, who heads the research organization Center for Peace and Civil Society. "We have huge economic losses and it is unimaginable. It has pushed poor people further back."

More than 2 million affected this year

In 2010, millions of Pakistanis were forced to leave their homes as torrential rains and flooding forced the rivers to burst their banks, uprooting houses and property in the country.

Those floods claimed 2,000 lives and affected 18 million people, more than a tenth of the population, leaving 11 million people homeless. Aid agencies estimate that some 800,000 families are still without shelter from those floods and around 1 million people are in need of food.

Compounding that problem, floodwaters swept through much of Sindh Province in August and September – from the fertile land to the desert of Thar – destroying thousands of small villages across the southern province in their path.

The result is a bleak picture. Poor villagers and tent villages line the roads. Floodwater is everywhere.

Those who couldn't get proper tents have built makeshift structures with wooden planks and plastic sheets donated by relief workers. Children swat away flies while they play. Villagers rush approaching vehicles in the hopes of getting meals for starving families.

The floods, caused by heavy rains and subsequent breaches in drainage canals, have killed more than 400 people, and medical experts say more than 2 million people are suffering from flood-related diseases. Some 200,000 cattle – hard cash for villagers – have also died. And some 600,000 acres of agricultural land has been destroyed.

Officials overwhelmed

Officials and ruling-party legislators say they are trying their best to provide relief to the affected people, but they say they are in dire need of resources to counter the catastrophe.

"We need tents, drinking water, water purification tablets, and medicines. Nothing we do is enough. It is beyond NGOs' and government's capacity alone because the catastrophe is of humongous scale," says Nawab Taimur Talpur, a member of parliament from the ruling Pakistan People's Party.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani have visited flood-hit areas in Sindh Province, a stronghold of the ruling party, and declared several districts to be "calamity-hit areas." But Islamabad is also juggling numerous other challenges, including terrorism, violence, a fragile economy, and an epidemic of dengue fever in central Punjab Province.

"The government and its disaster management organizations … failed to forecast the disaster despite their experience with last year's floods. They also delayed inviting the international donors for aid [this year]. They called them in when the floods have already caused irreparable loss," says Mr. Chandio of the Center for Peace and Civil Society.

Aid agency officials say that around half a million people have been displaced already, and they warn of a humanitarian crisis. Affected people, they say, will likely try to migrate toward cities such as Hyderabad and Karachi, placing an extra burden on resources. Already, about 200,000 affected people have moved to Umerkot District and its surroundings, with local hospitals overflowing with patients. Some 35,000 people have thronged to Hyderabad and Karachi. Men are struggling to find jobs.

Karim Junejo, a farmer, covered hundreds of miles on foot and by boat and vehicle before he finally reached Karachi in the hopes of securing a job. "I saw my village sinking. My cousin had been swept away by gushing water. Now I have nothing left except whatever I am wearing," says Mr. Junejo. He left his ailing mother and a sister in a temporary camp.

"I can only go back when I have some money, so I can bring my only cow here and sell it off." He says he hasn't been able to, because few are willing to pay much for animals from the region.

United Nations appeal

The United Nations, however, has now launched an appeal for $365 million to provide relief to the millions of affected people in Sindh. "That so many people caught up in the emergency were still trying to reestablish their lives after last year's terrible flooding makes this a very complex and urgent situation," says Mengesha Kebeda, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan.

The government is working on setting up tent cities in place of temporary camps, plugging breaches, and activating mobile medical clinics. Plans to make arrangements to pump out the standing water are also in the works, according to officials.

Back in Badin District, officials say the water is starting to recede, but it will be a while before the lives of Malkani and his family will be able to get back to normal. "Our life is ruined. We need to collect twigs like a bird to start a new life. We know there are millions of hands in demand and only thousands of hands to offer help," says Malkani. Reciting a couplet from a Sindhi poet, he adds, "Oh God of birds, don't gift feathers to eagles; if you can't stop rain, then stop giving mud houses to poor people."

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