glimpse beneath the surface at a disaster that took time
to build, then quickly grew to become one of Pakistan’s
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 www.alertnet.org
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
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