FLOOD RELIEF IS HAPPENING IN PAKISTAN
by Talib Qizilbash
It is not really what we expected.
But that was a good thing.
A couple of friends and I visited flood-hit areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on August
14 and 15. We made arrangements with three different NGOs through which relief packages
of food would be distributed to flood-affected families.
On August 14, we followed the team from Shahina Aftab Foundation
(SAF) to Risalpur, just a few minutes away from Nowshera city. We had met the
SAF management the night before in their Islamabad offices where we
discussed the ground realities and the plan of action for Saturday’s work.
Nearby PAF Risalpur, in the Cantonment area, six schools had been converted into
relief camps for flood-hit IDPs. The six schools housed approximately 6,000 people.
One area had been specially allocated for about 221 Christians, said army officials.
The military, who managed the camps, believed that this was best given it was Ramadan:
this way non-Muslims were free to drink and eat without offending those who were
The army engineer corps there had already set up clean drinking water in the days
before our arrival. Scores of bottles of water in the SAF office
were now being saved for a future day: they were no longer a part of the food ration
package for the Risalpur IDPs. This was proof of a common assertion made by relief
workers around the country: in a crisis like this, conditions and needs change daily.
The relief package arranged through SAF was designed to feed a
family of four for four days. That afternoon we were delivering 168 packages using
a portion of the funds we raised. The rest of the funds were being allocated to
other flood victims through different NGOs.
At Presentation Convent High School in Risalpur Cantonment the atmosphere was, remarkably,
not gloomy or squalid. A special event had just wrapped up for Independence Day
where small gifts had been distributed to the children there in an effort to “lift
their spirits,” according to Colonel Salem Sajid, who greeted us and headed one
of the army corps. A coloured tent still stood in the centre of the schoolyard even
though staff were already picking up the chairs. The festivities were not over though.
An army officer was reading out the names of registered families one by one over
the sound system. And one by one family representatives were going up to a table
to collect 1,000 rupees in aid. It wasn’t a lot, but it was something they could
put towards their family when it would come time to leave the camp (see photo gallery
As absurd as it sounds, it’s fair to say that the IDPs here were the lucky ones.
Many displaced people around the country were in camps with no running water, no
toilets and nothing to cook on. If they were fortunate, they had a tent that didn’t
leak and wasn’t being shared by multiple families.
At a camp in Charsadda, one volunteer relief worker told me that at first people
were sleeping with their livestock in their tents, desperate to safeguard whatever
they had left. And with no latrines and endless amounts of stagnant water the place
was a stinking mess, ripe for diseases.
Here in Risalpur, many of the people came from nearby areas in Nowshera District.
And in villages around Nowshera, the Kabul River – the Kabul River feeds into
the Indus near Attock – had overflowed greatly: by some local accounts as
much as 30 feet. Water marks on building walls showed that water flowed through
some villages 12-15 feet above street level. Thus, as the water level rose, some
houses eventually disappeared under the expanding river.
The military-run relief camps set up in the schools were nothing like what is shown
on television. According to officers guiding us around the camp, 1,440 people were
housed in Presentation Convent High School alone. Families lived in solid classrooms.
The school building we entered was built a couple of feet off the ground. It was
unlikely any minor flooding from heavy rains would inundate them. These IDPs had
secure, non-leaking roofs over their heads, working toilets nearby and a medical
clinic where both female and male doctors were accessible (though the clinic was
not manned by both at all times, and when we visited, only a medical assistant was
on duty, though the clinic had a healthy stock of medicine).
Most families fled their homes with very little. Some had bedding, others brought
a few valuables. According to Colonel (retd) Aftab Alam of SAF,
most didn’t have pots, stoves or any cooking utensils, so the army set up a kitchen
to cook for the IDPs. All relief food packages were handed over directly to the
army who cooked meals using the donated bags of rice, flour, ghee and daal.
Looking at the displaced parents here, they were far from happy. But there was a
general sense of calm. Kids played in the compound. Everyone had some space and
their immediate burdens (providing food, shelter, medicine, water to their families)
had been lifted. Of course, over two weeks after the floods commenced, it was clear
that their troubles had hardly commenced. The future was uncertain, and as such,
this was just the beginning: after this camp, they would face the daunting task
of rebuilding homes, businesses and lives. In fact, a new school year is scheduled
to start in the coming days. Classes could possibly be delayed for a week or two,
but not indefinitely. Soon, the 6,000 IDPs will probably have to be shifted. And
it is likely that the camps to which they are moved won’t be as well equipped or
comfortable as this one.
Still, not everyone was happy. Our food packages were enough for only 672 people,
and we didn’t have enough treats for all the kids – no parent likes to see
their child left out, and they let us know. Moreover, there were a couple of people
in the school who approached us and said they were not getting enough to eat. The
army had a registration system for everyone in the camp, and rations were systematically
being distributed to all, said the team from SAF. Nonethless, Mrs Shahina from SAF
ensured us that they would look into the matter, even though the SAF team had seen
the registration system and already visited all six schools in the area. They were
confident that everyone was being looked after as best possible, but admitted that
caring for 6,000 IDPs wasn’t simple and even the army was struggling with limited
resources and was dependent on NGOs for support.
For now, these Pakistanis can take solace that they have had, at least, some of
the best temporary relief. The army, partnering with relief organisations such as
SAF, was doing a tremendous job providing safe and clean living conditions, meeting
everyone’s basic needs. This is a view of the relief response that the media has
failed to show. It was not what we expected. And in these times, meeting expectations,
let alone exceeding them, is dismissed as an impossibility.