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Flood-hit Pakistanis decry official response

Victims denounce haphazard government reaction after disaster that has killed hundreds and affected millions.

| Environment, Humanitarian crises, Pakistan, Floods

Water levels have begun to recede, but millions of hectares of land remain inundated [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

By

Asad Hashim

Multan, Pakistan - It's been nearly two weeks since Pakistan's two major rivers flooded large parts of northern Pakistan, but the government's response has been anything but prompt.

Residents in flood-hit areas have complained about the haphazard and inadequate reaction to the deluge that has left at least 323 people dead and affected more than 2.4 million people.

"The government has done nothing - they are neither giving us aid nor listening to our problems," said Khuda Buksh, 55, who has stayed behind in his crumbling, flooded home in the village of Nawa Sher Shah, 10km southwest of Multan, to look after his livestock, while his family seeks shelter in drier areas.

It was a sentiment echoed by Hayat Mai, 70, who spent days outside in scorching temperatures of more than 35 degrees Celsius, sheltering under a rope-and-wood bed on an earthen dyke with several family members.

"We have nothing. We were not able to escape with anything but our lives," her grandson, Muhammad Ajmal, told Al Jazeera, of their flight from Gharibabad village, also in Multan district, about 450km south of the capital, Islamabad.

The government said it has set up 183 relief camps across worst-hit Punjab province, providing food aid, tents, medicine, and veterinary assistance to those affected by the floods.
Many people, however, seem to be either unaware of the government's provisions, or unable to access them to due to a lack of official identification papers.

Government officials concede it is difficult to reach all of the affected people, blaming communication problems for some of the gaps.

"There are some issues in organising the response, because we have an issue reaching some of the affectees and explaining to them the situation," said Ahmed Chisti, a government official running a major relief camp at Muhammadpur Gota, just outside Multan.

Flooding began after three days of torrential rains two weeks ago, initially hitting Kashmir (both the India- and Pakistan-administered sides), before moving on to Gilgit-Baltistan and Punjab province, with the Rivers Jhelum and Chenab, and their associated tributaries, flooding more than 2.3 million acres of land.

'Day of judgment'

About 2.2 million people have been affected in Punjab province alone, with more than half a million being evacuated from the worst-hit districts of Jhang, Multan, Sarghoda, Khanewal, Rahim Yar Khan and Hafizabad, among others, according to Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

More than 3,000 villages in the country's most populous province, ranging in size from a few households to hundreds of inhabitants, have been washed away, according to NDMA.
"This was not a flood," Abdul Rauf, a 34-year-old labourer from Faizabad village in Multan district, told Al Jazeera, as he described how he and his family were forced to flee their home as rising waters began to wash away their belongings. "It was the day of judgment."

Rauf has become one of hundreds of thousands who have fled their homes for relatively drier areas. He and his family of seven are currently staying in a single tent pitched on one of the River Chenab's embankments.

As the South Asian nation faces the worst flooding since 2010, which saw one of the worst humanitarian disasters in Pakistan's history, many non-government organisations have taken the lead in rescue operations.

One such organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), has been at the forefront of rescue activities in many areas of Punjab, working alongside the Pakistani military. Officials said there was, however, no co-ordination between the military and JuD.

"I thank the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, who have brought me this aid. No one else has come here before - no government, no one," said Muhammad Naveed, 52, a resident of the remote village of Nawa Sher Shah, about 10km southwest of Multan.


RELATED: In Pictures: Floods ravage Pakistan


JuD is a religious instruction and charity organisation headed by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, a US-designated terrorist organisation, that supports operations in Kashmir and elsewhere. Saeed himself has had a $10 million bounty on his head since 2012, but continues to work freely in Pakistan.

Many such as Naveed have stayed behind in their villages, despite the flooding, to care for their livestock or protect their land and belongings. 

Several villagers Al Jazeera spoke to complained when they had returned to their homes to retrieve their belongings after initially fleeing, there was nothing left.

"Our whole village has been emptied out. We sent a boat yesterday and saw that even our belongings had been looted by someone," said Faiz Muhammad, 54, a resident of Faizabad.

More than 15.6 million livestock, mostly buffalo and goats, which are a major source of income here, have been affected by the flood, according to the NDMA.

Poor disproportionately hit

Haris Gazdar, a senior researcher at the Karachi-based Collective for Social Science Research, said the poor have been disproportionately hit by the floods.

"The landless, land-poor and socially marginalised, generally live in lower-lying areas," he told Al Jazeera. "Many do not have secure title to their residential plots. They have weaker social networks and become reliant quickly on local patrons for refuge and subsistence."

Many of the affected areas were flooded when certain dykes were deliberately breached by officials. While the NDMA, the Pakistani military and local irrigation departments do have established protocols for breaching major dykes and embankments, procedures become less formal when it came to smaller dykes where Al Jazeera visited.

'Fugitive' Pakistani leads flood relief

"There are many other smaller bunds [earthen dykes] … where much local politics is at play. The smaller bunds are often local embankments created by landowners in the riverine area," he said, explaining how decisions on breaching or reinforcing those dykes causes flooding in other areas.

Sumaira Bibi, a resident of Gharibabad village, said her village had been flooded with just five minutes notice given to residents to evacuate. "We had gone back after the initial flood had receded two feet, but then they broke the dyke without warning, so we had to flee. We don't have anything here. We are sitting in the open sun. They least they can do is give us a tent."

Ahmad Kamal, a spokesman for NDMA, confirmed that decisions on breaching smaller dykes were made by local officials on the ground. 

Rehabilitation challenge

Water levels have now begun to recede in parts of Punjab, but millions of acres remain inundated, leaving this season's rice harvest in ruins.

The flood, according to the NDMA's data, is now moving towards the southern Sindh province, but reduced water levels because of strategic breaching of dykes means the flood flow is expected to be manageable.

Kamal said a flood flow of 500,000 cusecs (a flow of one cubic foot of water per second) was expected at the Guddu and Sukkur barrages, which was "not an issue", but "people in low-lying areas should still be evacuated, particularly in areas where there is threat of erosion and dykes possibly breaking".

In Punjab, meanwhile, many villagers remain stranded, unsure of when they can return home.

"Their need has just begun. Their crops have been wasted, their houses washed away. They need food and shelter. This will take at least a year to do," said Nasir Hamdani, a doctor who leads JuD nationwide medical relief effort.

Chisti, the government official, conceded the real challenge was rehabilitation.

"[In the camp] we are giving them better facilities than they have at home. We are fine with the relief aspect, but when it comes to rehabilitation, rebuilding their homes and the losses of their crops, there will be problems," he said.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera

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