Pakistan currently faces the biggest humanitarian crisis of modern history that has been wreaked by a natural disaster. Weeks of heavy monsoon rains have caused the biggest flood in living history of the region and have spurred an unprecedented migration of people out of the flood affected areas. With nearly 15% of the population of the country directly affected by the raging waters, the economic and social costs of this calamity are rapidly escalating with every passing day. While the calamity took several weeks to unfold, the impact of the colossal loss of lives, property and public works is yet to be felt by the population at large. Currently, the assistance in flood affected areas is focusing on rescue and relief operations; though largely being conducted by the armed forces and the government, NGOs and civil society are not far behind in providing relief goods in their individual and collective capacities.
Although this tragedy casts real doubts about the “progress” achieved within the country since its creation, it provides us with a window of opportunity to derail the hay-wired and ad hoc developmental policies and actually try and divert the process to a more equitable and sustainable track. Response to any natural disaster begins with rescue and relief efforts, to minimize casualties and loss to life. If however, it is not followed by well-planned, coordinated and stream-lined efforts of reconstruction and rehabilitation of the affected populations, progress will at best stagnate, resulting in widespread dissatisfaction and disaffection among the affected populations.
Though rescue efforts are continuing, the mass out-migration of populations to safer areas will cause a burden on the local civic and economic structure of the receiving areas. Keeping this in mind, relief camps providing adequate housing and sanitation facilities to the victims should be the first order of the day. While the camps may be located outside city limits, to prevent overcrowding and potentially health and safety hazards, attempts must be made to keep the camps established by different organizations close together, making logistical supply of relief goods and healthcare easier. As experienced in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2005, while these populations can suffer acute infective water borne and vector borne illnesses, such as gastroenteritis, Malaria, Scabies, relief workers providing health facilities will also be inundated by chronic diseases e.g. malnutrition, untreated hypertension and Diabetes.
This is a result of decades of poorly functioning healthcare systems, where nearly 78% of the rural population of Pakistan having limited access to public healthcare; these are the very same populations which form the bulk of the displaced populations. Relief efforts must therefore focus on preventing spread of infectious diseases and addressing the long-standing illnesses at the same time. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological condition resulting from exposure to extremely stressful situations; survivors of the current natural disaster where people have lost their family members, homes and belongings too will show signs of PTSD. Relief efforts must therefore include services of trained psychiatrists and mental health experts.
Besides providing food supplies and healthcare to the flood victims, these camps must also ensure personal safety of those inhabiting them. A very serious issue arising during and after mass migrations, as seen in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, is human trafficking and enforced prostitution in return for safety and relief goods. Mostly focusing on women and children, these criminal activities are largely under-reported, poorly investigated and rarely punished. Safety within the camps can be increased by keeping families together, increasing the presence of male and female security guards and handing over children and women separated from their families into the care of local Darul-Aman facilities of the government. Name lists of such individuals should be maintained and circulated among the different relief camps and local police stations to assist families in locating their lost ones.
Once the flood water recede and the affects begin the return journey home, they will be faced by multiple problems. Public and civic works have been destroyed; road links may be washed away, power lines have snapped, tenuous gas supplies have been disrupted and potable water is now fully contaminated. These disruptions reflect the fury of the raging waters in the flooded areas and present a challenge to the local governments to replace the civic and public facilities. Development in Pakistan has at best been ad hoc and inequitable; less than 8% of rural households use natural gas to cook food, only 20% have tap water and have to rely instead on hand pumps (41%) and motor pumps (24%) and a horrifying 33% of the rural population has no access to sanitation in the form of toilets. [Footnote] These civic works and amenities will have to be re-designed and constructed in order to bring some semblance of development and relief to the returning populations. However, this is the time for governmental departments to harmonize their plans and efforts of reconstruction and rehabilitation. Community members must be included in the planning process, as they can best guide the planners about population needs; community advisory boards of the now defunct system of decentralization should be reactivated and can serve as focal points for promoting effective and efficient planning. Another aspect that the government should consider is awarding contracts for reconstruction of civil works to local agencies. This will create employment and livelihood opportunities for the returning migrants and will promote local construction industry. At the macro-level, the government should seriously consider freezing the costs of construction material e.g. cement and steel to prices prevailing before the floods.This will prevent unethical market forces from profiteering in the face of this large scale humanitarian disaster.
Local police forces have to be redrafted and assigned to the flood affected areas to ensure security of those returning home and to prevent looting and pilfering of empty homes. Returning families will also need to replace various kinds of legal documents, from NICs to land ownership documents. The process of re-issuing such important documents must be streamlined and made simpler for individuals who have already undergone such life-altering trauma. Since most such documents will have to be reported before they can be replaced, police registry systems must be established along with offices of local courts and departments of land and agriculture and interior division. If temporary offices are housed close by in the flood affected areas, it would make the task of acquiring these important documentations much simpler.
Having lost their homes and all their accumulated wealth, the victims of recent floods are now destitute. Mostly farmers and cattle herders by trade, their standing crops have been destroyed, all the grain stored for the upcoming winter season and for future sowings have been washed away and most have lost their cattle to waters or have sold them for a pittance to raise money for food and shelter for their families. Rehabilitation of such families is essential to ensure Pakistan’s future productivity of food and cash crops. With an economy highly reliant on agricultural products, Pakistan can ill-afford to ignore rehabilitation of the millions of families which directly or indirectly contribute over 20% of the country’s GDP.[Footnote] The government will have to consider provision of subsides on agricultural inputs including machinery, seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Private sector investment in this area could also provide alternative avenues for financing; institutes of microfinance should establish outreach services in the rural areas and provide loans at low interest rates to farmers and tillers to help re-establish their trade. It is now also time to consider land reforms for the affected populations and address long-standing issues of land entitlement. Punjab Tenancy Act 1887, Punjab Tenancy Rules 1953, and Punjab Tenancy Ordinance 1969 grant ownership of land to the tillers who have occupied that land for more than 25 years, yet in contravention to this legal provision thousands of tillers are not being granted their rights of ownership.
Similar problems exist in Sindh, where tillers have been demanding a revision of Sindh Tenancy Act 1950, to ensure distribution of government owned farmland to poor tillers (haris) and not to those already possessing vast agricultural land[Footnote]. Once these tillers become owners of land, they will have incentives to apply modern techniques of sustainable farming, thus increasing production and minimizing losses.
With nearly a month into the flood crisis, there seems to be no end to the suffering of those dispossessed of their homes and separated from their only means of income. As time passes, the death tolls will only rise and painful and difficult process of rebuilding their homes, farms and lives has yet to begin. So what can ordinary citizens do; immediate needs of the relief efforts mostly include cash, non-perishable food items, potable water, medicines, blankets and shelter. With time, this need will transform into clothing, bed nets against mosquitoes, food items and water. We can help financially by giving as generously to the cause as possible. This is not a one-time effort, as rehabilitation and rebuilding will be continuing over the 2-3 years. We can also help politically and socially, by maintaining a pressure, asking our elected representatives what is being done on ground, visiting the affected sites and then spreading the word around, reporting illegal activities, e.g. re-sale of relief goods in the markets or human trafficking. In the world of the internet, mobile phones and ubiquitous television and print media, we all have a voice.
So lets keep this issue alive. The dismal figures of international relief funds should warn us that this is our problem and ours alone to tackle. Others may help for some time and so provide the much needed respite, but until we get involved, nothing will change for the 20 million and counting affected by this natural disaster.