A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
In 2010 Pakistan was struck by its worst ever natural disaster, one fifth of the country was inundated by floodwater causing massive damage to infrastructure.
Roads were submerged, bridges swept away, and many schools and hospitals damaged, affecting an estimated 20 million people. As the land was lost to water so were the livelihoods of the people as their crops and homes were destroyed and their livestock drowned.
The immediate aftermath
There was too much water but none of it clean or good to drink; water pipes had been swept away, and thirsty desperate people were taking unsafe water from the rivers to drink. Many areas were cut off from the rest of the country, villages and even concrete buildings had been destroyed. Many people, couldn't afford to go anywhere, not only had they lost what little they had, including their means of making a living, now they were forced into debt to escape the rising waters.
We were on hand to aid the safe evacuation of more than 240,900 people trapped by the floods in Punjab and Sindh using local search and rescue boats. Our teams on the ground responded immediately with essentials for hygiene, shelter and food. By supplying something as simple as bars of soap we were arming people with the means to defend against disease. Oxfam staff managed to reach some areas on foot, bringing with them water purifying powder which can turn bad water to good in just 20 minutes. Checks were handed out to flood affected families to help them get through the first few weeks, money they needed for food, medicine, medical bills and to pay off debts incurred when travelling to escape the floods.
"When the flood came we were just sitting in our home. The water came very fast. We could only save our children, ourselves and some clothes - we didn’t even have time to save some crockery and other things. We lost everything… our home, livestock." Razia from Sindh was one of the people to receive a check following her families escape from the floods.
The floods continue
Following this initial catastrophic inundation, when 80 percent of food reserves were lost, Pakistan had four consecutive years of flood disasters destroying harvests, particularly in South Punjab and Sindh provinces which grow wheat and rice for the whole country. Each fresh flood put millions of people at renewed risk of disease and widespread malnutrition. As crops and homes were washed away, debts increased as people were forced to borrow to feed themselves and their families, homeless for months, unable to resume their usual way of making a living; nothing to eat, nothing to trade.
When they could return home, there was little enough to come back to, most having to sleep outside in makeshift shelters until their houses dried out enough to be repaired. Tents you helped us provide made a welcome change to wooden poles with cotton sheets for a roof, while people rebuilt their homes, and planted crops. We went to villages and encouraged communities to select their own community health volunteers; also providing hygiene kits and training, so that knowledge could be spread and sickness averted. Our cash for work programs provided valuable income to those in need, whilst paying them to carry out vital rebuilding work.
“We had nothing and you provided us with all these things that are very useful to us,” said Ajeeba, one of the community health volunteers in Goth Zawar Suleman, in Khairpur. “We cannot say that any one of them is not useful. I want to tell you that this has been excellent and well done!”
Building the future
Successive years of flooding has meant that many have not been able to fully recover from the huge inundation of 2010. Flood defenses are not rebuilt quickly enough and each new flood they lose, or are unable to sow, their crops and are forced deeper into debt. We are helping people prepare for natural disasters and providing aid in their aftermath. Disaster preparedness is essential as each flood risks a greater humanitarian crisis than the last, with the same vulnerable people affected again and again.
Our Disaster Risk Reduction programs include contingency planning; developing early warning systems; holding evacuation drills; elevating houses and other areas for livestock and crop storage; building embankments; and spreading information campaigns so communities are better-able to prepare for emergencies.
We have called on the Pakistani government to invest more (with the aid of international donors) in such things as flood resistant housing, and effective early warning systems – especially at the village level, as well as more funding at a local level to prepare and respond to emergencies. Our girls’ education program has already constructed model schools - flood-proof and equipped with sanitation facilities and we are working with district governments to replicate this model throughout affected provinces.
“A strong recovery and reconstruction strategy should be followed by intensified work led by the government to ensure Pakistanis are better prepared for future disasters,” said Arif Jabbar Khan, country director of Oxfam. “We need to accelerate current efforts. With climate change set to make floods and droughts more frequent and severe, the next government should make this a priority."