Recently I traveled to Pakistan to see some of the relief and reconstruction work that the Open Society Foundations have been supporting. What I saw came as a complete surprise.
I had the chance to visit a few villages in Charsadda district of Kyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan. Mohmand Agency, a district in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan where the army offensive on terror groups is continuing, starts just across the river.
The floods came in August 2010. The sudden downpour upstream had swelled the rivers to the extent that they inundated villages that normally did not get flood waters. In some areas the water was more than 10 feet deep. Even now one can see the water marks on trees and buildings. And then there was rain too: rain that continued for many days.
When we visited these villages it had already been six months since the floods. The water was gone. But as you walk through the lanes of the villages and into the fields the massive extent of the damage stares you in the face. Hardly any house was left standing in some of these villages. The only structures that survived were the pucca (brick) government schools or mosques (usually made in elevated places and usually pucca).
But it is the fields around these villages that really surprised me. These lands are known for sugarcane crops but as we stepped into the fields I saw a lot of sand, very fine white sand, in the fields. The accompanying farmers told us that the rivers brought tremendous amounts of debris with them, mostly sand. These villages are on a plateau and just beyond its edges one can see hills. But I did not think that these hills were so dry that all that the flood waters would bring down would be such fine white sand. In some areas the sand brought by the waters was as high as four feet or more.
And sand was everywhere. Within minutes our clothes were full of it; I could feel the crunch in my mouth and I was definitely breathing a lot of it. Although the villagers, with whatever help they have been able to muster, from within the community and from NGOs, have tried to clear their fields so that they can start sowing their crops again, one could see piles of sand on the edges of plots of agricultural land. There is just too much of it and the cost of removing the sand, without access to heavy machinery and with only tractors, trolleys, and manual labor, is just too high.
We visited some of the houses in these villages too. The better off have been able to reconstruct or repair their houses and return them to being homes. Most of the poor are still struggling. They do not have the resources to clear land and rebuild their houses, most of which have been almost completely washed away. Relief assistance was mainly food and medicines, and it is almost gone now.
The government, though it had promised that it will provide funds for reconstruction of houses, has done nothing. And given the macroeconomic condition of the country and government efforts to reduce the deficit, there is no hope for any government funding right now. People feel abandoned by the government and know they will have to make do, somehow or the other. But with very limited funding coming from abroad, this is going to be a huge struggle.
There were hundreds of children just milling around. The village, six months after the deluge, does not have a functional school. The government school was damaged and has not been repaired. The children just spend the days walking around, playing in the sand, and enjoying themselves the best way they can. All of them were covered with sand, and they must be breathing it in too. I wonder what sort of health issues will crop up in due course.
We only saw a few villages and only met with a few people. But their struggles to get a life back, to make things go back to how they were, to have green fields and some livestock, to have shelter and a few changes of clothing, were clear. And these are struggles—though issues might vary by location—that cut across the millions that have been affected by the floods, across the length of the country.
Most of these people were poor to start off with. The floods have left them without shelter, and without even the minimum they had accumulated with huge effort over decades. They are a very resilient people and they will survive, though this is going to be a tough struggle. The question is, Can we help?
The Open Society Foundations, though not a traditional relief organization, funded food relief in the initial days after the floods. We currently fund community organization and rebuilding through help with land clearance, rehabilitation of water courses, water and sewerage rehabilitation, and distribution of seeds and fertilizer, among other things. But the needs are obviously much larger than what any single organization can do.