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17 September 2011

Water, water everywhere

Help is desperately needed for the flood victims in Pakistan

By New Statesman

The floods in Pakistan have affected more than six million people. Here is an eyewitness account from an Oxfam aid worker, Tarik Masood Malik, in the affected region:

While witnessing the ravages of rain in the southern Sindh, Pakistan, I stopped at a road-side relief camp in the Nandu area of Badin district. A middle-aged man beckoned me to come and meet a family that had taken shelter in a brick shed normally used by passengers travelling along the road as a resting-stop. Inside, a woman was sat hunched on the floor baking bread. Her name, I was told, was Lal Khatoon.

The small room housed four families – comprising around 30 people. Men, women and children all huddled up around me. I caught a glimpse of a little baby that Lal Khatoon was holding in the crook of her arm.

Lal Khatoon comes from Single Chak, Shadi Lal in Badin District – the first and most badly affected district in the recent rains. She looks older than her years. Though she does not exactly know the year of her birth, she is told by other women around her that “she is under thirty.” She gave birth to her seventh child during the current rains. She already had three sons and as many daughters. She was lucky not to have faced any complications during childbirth, as there was no trained health worker present at the time of her delivery.

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But immediately after her child was born she was faced with another challenge: her baby girl was four days old when the roof of her one-room house collapsed under the incessant rains. Her district, Badin, is reported to have witnessed continuous rains from the second week of August. During these rains, breaches in the drain have inundated Badin with water. Lal Khatoon and her family had to leave on foot, without any belongings.

She and her husband work as sharecroppers on a local landlord’s land. After working on the land for a year, her family gets to keep 25 per cent of the total crop – which is barely enough to sustain them. There is no excess once she’s seen to the needs of her family, and so Lal Khatoon has no savings.

She and her other clan members walked for miles carrying her newborn baby Abida (“worshipper [of God]”) and three younger children. She and her cousin took it in turns to carry Abida. After trudging for hours, a military vehicle picked them up and took them to a government camp in Union Council Nando.

Khatoon suffers a lot of problems in the shed she now lives in by the roadside. But in some ways her family is fortunate – many do not have their own room. The compound of an adjacent camp set up in a school building looks like a pond and people have great difficulty moving around and using the toilets. The site is inundated with mosquitoes, which further increases the difficulties.

Khatoon says: “I am not feeling well after days of struggle at home to save my children and livestock; now the mosquitoes and lack of water and food has drained me of all the energy I need to face homelessness in such terrible weather.” Khatoon gets a 10kg bag of flour from the government, which she is told will be delivered every ten days. This is the maximum amount they have at any one time. “We manage by skipping meals and by eating a quarter or sometimes, if we’re lucky, a half a piece of bread.” During the rains they went without food for ten days as the stock they had only lasted for a week.

Her constant fear is, how will she manage to care for her child who is already sick with skin rashes and diarrhoea? How will she build back her house? The land is underwater and it will take at least six months for it to be cultivable again. “We would probably starve to death or die of cold,” she says.