Pakistan: This disaster should not have been unexpected

It’s often the unexpected things that cause the most impact. My five day visit to Sindh province in southern Pakistan in the first week of September proved to be no exception.

The trip had been planned for weeks; I was going to visit our local partners and projects in the province to see the progress being made in helping flood ravaged communities to recover after the catastrophic 2010 floods. What I hadn’t anticipated was that I would find myself in the midst of another flooding emergency.

Driving through Badin province I encountered major highways flooded, search and rescue activities and floodwaters that were well over a metre deep as far as the eye could see.  The roads were lined with people who had fled their homes with what few possessions they could salvage and were now living under dirty plastic sheeting, ripped tents or any kind of covering they could improvise. We visited a camp where the conditions were shocking; people had no spare clothing, little food and poor hygiene facilities. Children ran bare foot on filthy corridors which were scattered with open fires where women were taking the little flour that they had to bake chapatti – the only food their families would eat perhaps for the next few days.

The impact on me was strong; these people were in desperate need and Oxfam would have to launch a response.

A man-made disaster?

But this disaster should not have been unexpected, and its impact should not have been so huge. It’s true the rains have been unseasonably heavy but this alone does not explain the extent of the devastation. Poorly designed and maintained flood protection infrastructure has yet again failed with numerous breeches occurring in Southern Sindh.  The result has been gallons of saline water saturating Badin and the surrounding provinces, sweeping away people’s houses, killing cattle and crops and cutting off access roads. Many are calling this season’s flooding a ‘man made disaster’.

The tail end of my trip brought more positive sights. We visited villages in what were at that point less badly affected areas of Sindh (although that has regrettably now changed for the worse) where Oxfam along with local partners had been working with communities that had been totally washed away in the 2010 floods. Communities together with Oxfam and our partners RDF and SAFCOW were rebuilding their homes, learning good hygiene practices, and preparing themselves to minimise the impacts of future disasters. I was proud to see Oxfam’s achievements, but that was dwarfed by how impressed I was with the ingenuity and determination of the communities themselves.

But again, I found myself disheartened to see that many of the other villages we drove past were being rebuilt without any thought for ensuring their resilience against future disasters. Latrines and water pumps were being built on low ground and houses were being rebuilt from mud and straw so that, heaven forbid, if the floods were to come again these would be the first thing to be washed away.

Forward planning

Pakistan is a country that is highly prone to disasters. But while such events will inevitably cause destruction, they don’t always have to be so devastating on the lives of women, men and children they effect.

In Oxfam’s projects, we are always planning with future disasters in mind. We have long been arguing for the incorporation of disaster risk reduction (DRR) principles into construction, planning and infrastructure design in Pakistan. To me, it seems insane for the government, the donor community and NGOs to be constantly reacting to one crisis after another, when with a little forethought and bold, proactive investment the Government with the support of the international community can help to minimise future impacts. As a recent Oxfam report noted, an initial investment of  $27 million in disaster risk measures such as early warning systems, flood control and more resilient housing could have greatly reduced the estimated $10.9bn to the government cost of last year’s historic floods. We are yet to see how much loss of property and life could have been prevented this time round.

When I think about the communities that we visited down in Sindh, I know that I can have hope that those living in villages rebuilt by Oxfam and other organisations who plan ahead for future disasters will still have homes and villages to return to when these flood waters eventually recede. But for those people in the villages that have been made and remade of straw and mud, I fear that I can’t be so hopeful. Let’s make sure that we all give them a better chance next time.

Oxfam works with others to overcome poverty and injustice. Neva Khan is the Country Director for Pakistan.

Originally published by The Independent.

More on Oxfam's response to the Pakistan floods.

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