Pakistan floods: Unbearable loss, unexpected hospitality

Emergencies article written on the 15 Sep 2010

Oxfam staff member Jane Beesley is currently traveling throughout Pakistan, surveying the extent of the flood’s damage and assessing the impact of Oxfam’s emergency response. In this blog post — the first of a series — Jane visits Shikarpur District in the southern Sindh Province. All photos also by Jane.

Breakfast arrives at 5.45am and we’re ready to go at 6am. It’s already hot and temperatures will hit 45 degrees for much of the day. We’re travelling out to some of the camps, based in schools, where Oxfam is distributing cash cheques to people displaced by the flood. We pass people living along the roadside, others in more formal tented camps – it’s painfully obvious how little they have. Water buffaloes, who should be plump and round, looking like they’re made of polished ebony, now have hip, and other bones, sticking out. They wander down the road in their search for food. As we drive on the scale and number of displaced people slowly starts to sink in.

On the flight down from Islamabad, despite cloud cover, I could just make out the vast extent of the flood going on and on, seemingly never-ending.

The first place we visit is a school where around 360 families are living. All the families are going to receive a cheque for 5,000 Rupees (around AUD $62) to help support them through the next two or three weeks.

I meet Raiza, a petite young woman of 21 or 22, who had just received her cheque. She tells me they’d lost everything in the flood; they “didn’t even have time to save some crockery”. She adds, “I’m worried about my children…at the moment they are not sick but they are weak because they don’t have enough food to eat.”

Before we leave the camp she comes and finds us again, this time bringing her children to meet us. She says she is going to spend most of the money on food for the children.

At all the camps we visit we are met with a warm welcome, and despite the little food they have they still offer visitors a share. I’m obviously hot, and very pink and pretty damp. Women offer me their own, handmade fans and several gather to fan us. We try to explain that they don’t have to do this, but they can’t understand why we want to stop them. Despite the circumstances we are still guests and should be looked after.

The schools are crammed with people. Not built for so many, or for living in, the conditions are bad. There are thousands of flies, most of the children have scabies and there’s a lack of food, and widespread sickness – mainly diarrhoea. We hear that most of the money from Oxfam’s distribution is being spent on food, medicine, medical fees and repaying debts incurred in getting here – a place safely away from the floods.

My colleagues are working extremely long hours. Getting up very early and working through to 11, 12 at night, the heat and humidity are constant, and there is little or no privacy as bedrooms double up as offices. This is the fourth week of the crisis in Sindh, and staff have had no respite. Everyone knows the size and urgency of the need, and as my colleague Zalynn says, “Our own conditions are nothing compared to having to live in a camp 24/7 in the 45 degree heat.”

Resources are thin on the ground, and yet we know we can respond to this. We can change people’s living conditions, we can help people stay healthy, we can support people’s eventual return home. But we desperately need the resources to do so.