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.
Alex Renton visits Pakistan, where the effects of the floods are still being felt more than 7 months later.
The injustice of the flood and its aftermath was clear to see from the causeway where we met the fishermen. On one side were the drowned fields and – in the distance – the hump in the water that was Mumtaz Ali's village, only to be reached by canoe now.
But on the other side, the land was dry. The green shoots of the winter wheat crop made a bright green veil over the mud and in the distance the sugar cane was getting bushy. Why the difference? I asked. "That is the land of a rich man," one of the fishermen said. "The case here is that if you are poor, you must live in the water."
This explanation excited the gathering crowd of ex-farmers. Some said the landlord had got the state government to drain the land, others that it had never been flooded at all. Then a car drew up, and out got a vast man, well over 6 and a half foot and impressively wide. The men made way – this is the landlord, Sikander Ali, someone whispered. "He is head of the village. He is the man who owns the dry land."
"We need fertilizer, we need seed, we need food," said Mr Ali after shaking hands. What of the land that needs draining, I asked. "For that, we need pumps. I've asked the district commissioner. I know government has given money to get the floods taken away. It hasn't happened and I'm going to petition the high court. It is all very, very corrupt. 90 crore rupees ($10.4 million) for food rations has gone missing. Meanwhile 50-60% of our people are dying of hunger. We have had no aid for two months."
With that message delivered, Mr. Ali departed. Other men gathered round us to give their views. Some said there had been aid but he had commandeered it: now Mr. Ali's men were selling the aid agencies' tents to the homeless families at 3500 rupees ($40) each. What's more, those same men had organized the deliberate blowing of a hole in one of the big embankments, to divert the floods. But many voices disagreed: no, Mr. Ali was a good man who'd lost his own home and was doing his best for his clan.
Others agreed that the sabotage had happened, but it had been done by men employed by the member of the state assembly. Or perhaps by the District Commissioner. The crowd got bigger and noisier and in the press people started to slip off the embankment as they argued. The midday sun burnt a hole in the mist, an unaccustomed light flooded the embankment and a stink rose from the opaque water.
The men of the local NGO with whom we were travelling listened as the argument grew. They looked exhausted. "Wherever we go, we hear these stories," said one of them, a specialist in health and sanitation funded by Oxfam. "People will say what they most want you to believe, what they think will get aid to them. It makes our work more difficult."
One of the NGO's trusted volunteers, a farmer named Janeb Khoso, took us to his village so we could talk over what had happened. As our 4x4 wound its way along the causeways, he told me of the evening in early August when the floods came to his village. "There's a bund [flood protection embankment] near here. It's very strong. It was built a long time ago, in the time of the British. It held up the flood in 1972 so we were proud of it. We knew no water could break it.
"At 7.30 in the evening, just after dark," Janeb continued, "the people who live close to the bund heard an explosion. The water started to flow. All at once it was like in the middle of an ocean. The people ran for their lives. They couldn't save anything. Because we are further away, my family had about an hour and so we escaped with a few clothes and some food. But we lost the furniture, the freezer and fridge that we saved years to buy. And we lost our seeds, our investment for this year. Our six buffaloes were drowned."
He gestured round the village – an island perhaps as big as two football pitches. Around it was mud and great pools of yellow-grey water. The houses looked as though they had melted from above; few had more than a couple of feet of eroded bricks left. Canvas tents and plastic tarpaulins stencilled with the logos of the relief agencies stood among the ruins.
"The explosion? Everyone knows who it was done by." Janeb named two big local landlords, prominent politicians. "They ordered it to be done to protect their lands and the lands of their people." The breach has already been mended, trapping the floodwaters on the lands the embankment was supposed to protect. As a result, many of the people of the villages around are still in the camps for the displaced.
Until two weeks ago, Janeb's village could only be accessed by boat, and he thinks it will be two months more at least before enough water will be gone for a crop to be planted. Even then, the land will need to be cleared or chemically treated; because where the floods have receded they often leave a thick white crust of salts.
"The flood should not have happened here," said Janeb, shaking his head. "But we didn't make a complaint about the explosion. We didn't dare. These are very strong people. They used explosives, after dark – if they had used a machine to break the bund we would have heard and we would have killed the drivers."
To be continued...