Six months after severe floods devastated the whole of Pakistan from the north to the south, an area greater that Great Britain, the crisis for Pakistan’s children is far from over. Cases of disease and malnutrition are increasing and millions are without adequate clothing and shelter during the freezing cold winter nights.
In the southern province of Sindh – the worst-hit region – large areas still remain underwater. Many farmers will not be able to plant winter crops, meaning their livelihoods and access to food in the coming months and years is severely affected. Government officials say some of the worst-affected areas could take up to six months to dry out.
I recently arrived in Pakistan to take over as the deputy team leader for Save the Children’s flood emergency response. I decided to take on the role after visiting in October, almost three months on from the floods. After spending two weeks with the extremely hard working and dedicated team here in Pakistan who were in the middle of a massive crisis on the ground, I knew I wanted to come back and work here.
Six months on from the Pakistan floods, as we develop our recovery strategy, I am constantly asking myself what we can do to improve the lives of children in Pakistan in the future. However, after spending two weeks in the field I feel that it’s hard, even impossible, especially for the flood-affected communities in Pakistan, to think about or focus on the future when there are still so many basic immediate needs that have yet to be met.
Most pressing needs: shelter, warm clothing and blankets
When I first arrived, I spent two weeks in Punjab and in Sindh, Pakistan, the areas worst hit by the floods. I also spent a lot of time speaking to children and parents in flood-affected communities about what happened during the floods and hearing about their needs now, 6 months on. One of the most pressing and immediate needs that children and parents keep identifying is still shelter, warm clothing and blankets.
It’s warm and sunny in the days, but bitterly cold in the evenings – I have experienced it myself but it was nothing compared to what the flood affected communities here have to endure. The majority of children (and parents) I spent time with have one set of thin clothing that they were wearing in the summer. The rest of their belongings (clothes, blankets, furniture) were washed away in the floods, often along with their houses.
Families still living in temporary shelters
Some families are now living in tents, some are building back mud houses themselves, (which will more than likely only be washed away in any future floods), some are building temporary shelters (with the help of Save the Children and other organisations), and some are still living under tarpaulins without blankets and warm clothing. Save the Children has been providing shelter, blankets and winter clothing and is still distributing these life-saving relief items, but it is still not enough, despite the massive scale and number of beneficiaries we have reached.
Children severely malnourished
Another major concern is with health and nutrition. I visited a stabilization centre run by Save the Children in Shikarpur in Sindh, where severely malnourished children were referred to by our mobile and static health and nutrition teams in the field. I met with four mothers and their severely malnourished children and was moved to tears to see a young boy who was almost 2 years old who was so malnourished that he looked only 5 months old.
Another boy could not stop crying, but no sound was coming from him because he was so malnourished that he didn’t have the energy to make a sound. I could see the pain in his eyes and in his face, and then I spoke to the mothers of these poor children, who were largely malnourished themselves, and heard their stories and of the pain that they felt because they did not have the means provide food and nourishment for their own children. I thought of what that must feel like for a parent, to not be able to provide for yourself and for your children, and the indignity of it. Again, I felt my eyes welling up.
The positive thing about the experience is that all these children who I spent time with were going to live because of the intervention of Save the Children and our wonderful staff who go out to the communities to identify and address their immediate needs. So, for example, the details of the mother I spoke to were taken and our livelihoods programme will ensure that they will receive a cash grant which will hopefully see that their family do not go short of food.
That day spent in the hospital with the malnourished children, their mothers and our dedicated staff of doctors made me realize how important it is for the government, donors and international community to keep responding as we move into the “recovery phase”, so that we can continue to build these communities back better in the months and years ahead.
What will the future look like for these children?
I also chatted with children in our temporary learning centres and child friendly spaces (huge tents that we constructed to replace damaged schools where kids come together to learn and play in a safe environment) and heard how, even when the school building was there before the floods, they had not attended school in two years because the government-paid teachers had not come to teach them. If this was the case before the floods, I fear what the future will look like for these children.
I realize there is still a massive amount to do to restore the lives of the flood-affected communities, and I worry that things will not improve in Pakistan for a very long time. But Save the Children has ambitious aims.
We have had a great response so far and I am so proud of the 2000 amazing and dedicated staff here working 7 days a week who have been distributing relief items, providing shelter and protection and safe spaces for children ensuring their health needs are met and that their education continues.
The work here is far from done and it will take a very long time for Pakistan to recover, but when I visit a hospital and speak to a mother whose young boy’s life has been saved due to our good work, I am inspired, thankful and hopeful for the future of the children whose lives were (and are) at risk after the floods six months ago.
Alex Gray, Deputy Team Leader, Save the Children Pakistan