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Flood victims walk along a submerged road at Karamdad Qureshi village in Dera Ghazi Khan
district of Punjab province. REUTERS/Asim Tanveer, courtesy

Pakistan’s superflood


A glimpse beneath the surface at a disaster that took time to build, then quickly grew to become one of Pakistan’s greatest calamities.

No  matter how concentrated the rain that precedes them, or how dramatic the surge of water down a valley, floods will always be seen as ‘slow-onset’ disasters, never quite as fixed in time and space as earthquakes. This was visible in the differing responses to the 2010 Haitian quake and the Pakistan ‘superflood’, as it was dubbed by the Pakistani media, the most destructive disasters in the two countries’ history.

The psychological importance of this is not to be underestimated. While Haiti was overwhelmed with aid in the first 48 hours after the earthquake, the response by donors, humanitarians and even the commercial media to the Pakistan floods was generally regarded as sluggish.

The world outside Pakistan only began to respond on 29 July when the story broke internationally. In fact, there had been a nine-day gestation period, which began when the first monsoon rains forced the authorities in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi to warn residents of low-lying areas to flee. After several years of below-average monsoons during which many storm-drains became clogged with trash, the 2010 monsoon, as predicted by the Pakistani Meteorological Office, began “normally” — with torrential downpours.

Ironically, those first rains were greeted as a blessing all over the country, whether by young boys pictured in newspapers jumping into Karachi’s China Creek, teenagers leaning out of their cars as they raced through the curtains of water sluicing ‘Isloo’ (Islamabad) or Punjabi and Sindhi farmers peering anxiously at the parched soil.

Ready to respond
When the flood surges finally crashed down through Nowshera, Charsadda and parts of Peshawar, the devastation was instantly historic. The death toll at the end of the first day was given as nearly 200, hundreds of thousands of people were cut off and the authorities asked for hundreds of boats to reach them. But the superflood had only just begun. Downriver in Punjab and Sindh provinces, the mass evacuations began — many of them managed by the Pakistani military, quickly to become a major player in the humanitarian response

The Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) was also well placed to respond. One of the most seasoned National Societies in the region, with recent experience of both natural disaster (the 2005 Kashmir earthquake) and fighting (the Pakistani military offensive in the Swat valley, which ended barely a year ago), it had 130,000 volunteers based in branches throughout the country.

As the flood moved south into Punjab and finally Sindh, the PRCS quickly pitched several thousand tents beside roads and railway lines and along the dykes where many displaced villagers first made camp after wading and swimming out of the flooded countryside.

Mobile PRCS medical teams — 25 of them at the end of July, increasing to 31 at the end of August — moved around the most seriously affected areas, treating people for the flood-related illnesses that quickly ‘spiked’: gastro-enteritis, respiratory tract infections, skin disease. “We see an average of 400 patients a day at this post,” said the PRCS’s Safina Hashim, speaking in a riverside village near Nowshera two weeks after a flash flood had all but razed it to the ground. “We try to move the posts to a different village every few days.”

By mid-August, the PRCS had distributed relief of one kind or another to more than 50,000 households, or an estimated 350,000 people countrywide, sometimes with the assistance of the ICRC and using international Red Cross Red Crescent resources already in-country or flown in by National Societies like those of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Iran, Qatar and Turkey.

The ICRC’s partnership with the PRCS in the areas of Pakistan affected by fighting, meanwhile, gave it access other agencies lacked, including in Baluchistan, which is generally off-limits for foreign aid workers on security grounds. In late August, the ICRC shipped food and other items for distribution by the PRCS to 70,000 people in Jaffarabad, Nasirabad and Sibi districts, the worst-affected areas in Baluchistan. Working with the PRCS, the ICRC also helped to restore links between the members of more than 750 families dispersed by the floods.

“Relief supplies were also provided to people displaced from Baluchistan to camps in Sindh and southern Punjab,” said Pascal Cuttat, head of the ICRC delegation in Islamabad.
The PRCS’s general level of readiness was probably as high, and the quantity of relief supplies it kept in stock as large, as is economically ‘rational’, even in a disaster-prone nation like Pakistan. The harsh truth is that no country can maintain the capacity needed to deal with a mega-disaster like the monsoon superflood fast enough to placate both domestic and international opinion.



Timeline of a
‘non-linear’ disaster

The gestation
21 July: At least 12 people die in floods in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Punjab provinces; parts of the cities of Lahore and Faisalabad are inundated.

29 July: The Swat and Kabul rivers, which feed the northern extremity of the Indus, can take no more: flood surges crash down through Nowshera, Charsadda and parts of Peshawar, the capital of KPK. Some 200 people are reported killed.

28 July: Torrential rain was one factor contributing to the crash of the Airblue Airbus 321 as it tried to land at Benazir Bhutto International Airport.

24 July: The Pakistani Meteorological Office correctly predicts “very heavy rain” for the following week. Islamabad records 65 mm of rain in a single 24-hour period.

23 July: More than 70 die in Baluchistan province, where the Pakistani military used helicopters based in Quetta to get relief to nearly 30,000 stranded people.

Tense times
3 August: Attention focuses on dams on the Indus that are taking far more water than they were designed to, even with spillways open. Had any one of them collapsed, Sukkur or Hyderabad, both major cities, would have been inundated.

6 August: The United Nations says at least 1,600 have been killed and 14 million affected. The PRCS pitches several thousand tents beside roads and railway lines and along the dykes where many displaced villagers first made camp after wading and swimming out of the flooded countryside.

10 August: Satellite photo images (see page 13) compare the swollen lower section of the Indus River to one year ago.

The flood waters recede
Early September: Thatta in the Indus delta, the most southerly city in the path of the main flood surge, is declared out of danger.

Mid-September: As flood waters recede, a clearer picture of the damage to health, food security and shelter emerges. Vast stagnant pools create an ideal breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes. An estimated 2 million people are at risk.

21 September: With support from all Movement partners, the PRCS has at this point given food relief to more than 150,000 people, while 31 PRCS mobile medical teams have so far provided medical care to some 120,000 people affected by the flood.

2 October: Flood waters in Pakistan have reached the Arabian Sea and are generally receding throughout the country.

Mid-October: The Pakistan Red Crescent and Movement partners develop long-term plans to deal with food security, disease prevention and control, long-term shelter and other issues.


Satellite images taken on 10 August 2009 and the same date this year show the extreme swelling of the Indus River, including the submersion of vast areas outside the normal floodplain.

A long bumpy road
Compounding the logistical nightmare that follows most major floods, with roads and bridges washed away, were the sheer distances involved. The superflood caused devastation from the Swat valley in the north of the country to the Indus delta in the far south, some 1,300 kilometres distant.

In addition, rural people displaced by the floods generally did not cluster but made camp at whatever point they first felt safe, often on the dyke nearest their flooded homesteads, or drove in tractor-trailers to the nearest town or city to get help. By and large, it was not a camp-based operation (few wished it were), but a highly diffuse one. The inevitable corollary: things took time.

As a variety of IFRC Emergency Response Units (ERUs) began to arrive in Pakistan, specialist PRCS water and sanitation teams reactivated equipment from former Spanish Red Cross ERUs, first shipped to Pakistan as part of the international response to the 2007 floods; more equipment was also flown in from Spain.

One unit, trucked from Karachi, was set up at Shikarpur, near a flyover where some 300 families, or about 2,000 people, slept in Red Crescent tents. “We’re pumping up to 20,000 litres a day,” said Nasir Khan, the PRCS team leader. “The people here were drinking dirty water from a lake before this.” The Shikarpur unit and others were, in their way, a model of how ERU deployments can strengthen National Society capacity in the long term.

‘Non-linear’ disaster
The emergency phase of the disaster could be said to have ended in the first week of September, when Thatta in the Indus delta — the most southerly city in the path of the main flood surge — was declared to be out of danger. But the disaster overall, as Jacques de Maio, ICRC head of operations for Pakistan, put it, was “non-linear” — without a clear beginning or end.

“With a tsunami or an earthquake,” he said, “there are a certain number of people killed and a certain amount of property destroyed, and that determines the immediate humanitarian response.” This was far from the case in Pakistan, with vast areas still submerged and hundreds of thousands of people newly displaced as late as the beginning of September.

The waters recede
As the flood waters receded, and more people began to return to their devastated homes and villages, a clearer picture of the damage emerged. Health, food security and shelter became the chief issues to be addressed in the medium term. The Sindh authorities said most of the province’s irrigation system had been washed away. Countrywide, the damage wrought by the superflood will take many months to assess; anything approaching full recovery will take many years.

In Punjab and Sindh, the inland sea which the Indus had become gave way in places to vast stagnant pools, the ideal breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes. Many ‘island-villages’ continued to depend on helicopter-borne relief.

The torrents also obliterated millions of acres of crops — rice, wheat, fruit and cotton, a vital cash export for Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of cattle perished and, in cities nationwide, food prices soared.

Many thousands of people — most of them village-dwellers dependent on agriculture — remained in hundreds of camps, where they were supplied with water (delivered by truck) and food. Added to these challenges was the approach of winter, with close to 1 million men, women and children receiving emergency and transitional shelter assistance.

“We are very grateful for the help we are receiving, but we need more,” said Fazlay Razak, a farmer in Charsadda, where farms were buried in mud that destroyed local wheat and sugar cane crops. “The food we have been given is not going to last. And without good farmland, I cannot start working to produce my own food to feed my children.

This story was reported by Alex Wynter and Jessica Barry, and written by Alex Wynter.
Alex Wynter was IFRC spokesman in Pakistan during August and early September 2010, and communications team leader in Haiti from February to May. He is a freelance journalist based in the UK. Jessica Barry is an ICRC communications delegate who also worked in Haiti and Pakistan.

A man carries food supplies distributed by the Pakistan Red Crescent Society in Nowshera town in August.
©REUTERS/Patrick Fuller/IFRC, courtesy

Double disaster, double hardship

Stunning images of the swollen Indus River — the photos of stranded villagers and submerged trucks — have made plain the sweeping scale of the Pakistan floods. Just below the surface there’s a challenging environment for aid workers and a double disaster in which communities already affected by fighting were then swept up in another catastrophe.

“In Pakistan we are seeing something unique,” said Jacques de Maio, ICRC’s head of operations for Pakistan. “The complexity of the crisis, the number of intersecting and distinct dynamics that are playing out in Pakistan at their full breadth is quite remarkable.”

In places such as Malakand division, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, it also means double hardship. “Only last year more than 1 million people were displaced by fighting within the area,” said Pascal Cuttat, head of the ICRC delegation in Islamabad. “Many of them are still displaced even now, and our support to them continues. The floods have come on top of that, and tens of thousands of people are suffering from a combination of armed violence and floods.”

In addition, flood victims in some areas contend with another problem: the threat of landmines. Swept down by the rains from the mountains where fighting is ongoing, mines and unexploded ordnance were deposited in previously uncontaminated areas. Khawaga Bibi found this out as she went out as usual one morning to collect firewood with the other women of her village near Dera Ismail Khan. As she bent to pick up a branch she stepped on a mine, which severed her right leg below the knee and injured her shoulder and arm. She was treated at the Surgical Hospital for Weapon Wounded run by the ICRC in Peshawar. In another incident, three children were severely injured.

Satellite images taken on 10 August 2009 and the same date this year show the extreme swelling of the Indus River, including the submersion of vast areas outside the normal floodplain.

A member of a Pakistan Red Crescent Society mobile medical team treats a child in the village of Pashtun Garhi in Nowshera district, KPK province.
REUTERS/Patrick Fuller/IFRC, courtesy


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