No respite for flood victims
“ Eating roti with piyaz (onion) is normally our daily menu – something which city people can never fathom,” says 35-year-old Mumtaz, a resident of Goth Maulvi Khair Mohammad, Sanghar District, Sindh. Mumtaz is a widow and is living with her five children in a semi-broken home, which was destroyed in last year’s floods.
“The flood has taken away all our belongings including our two precious goats, now we are left with few utensils and charpoys and a couple of bedsheets,” tells Mumtaz, who is a labourer and picks cotton from the fields. “Since our house was submerged, we had to take shelter in the village’s school and stayed there for six months. We came back to our dilapidated house when the water finally began to recede,” she adds.
“Life was never easy for us but we were far better off before the floods hit our village a year ago. Now, it has become very difficult to meet both ends. Though we also stitch rallies in our spare time, the income is not sufficient to feed the whole family. We normally eat roti with potatoes or sometimes just roti with piyaz. We cannot afford to eat even vegetables. Because of not having full meals, our women and children are generally under-nourished,” elucidates Mumtaz.
There are hundreds and thousands of women like Mumtaz who live in absolute poverty in rural areas of Sindh. Their lives have become more miserable in the backdrop of unprecedented last year’s rains. 2022 disastrous deluges affected millions of people across Pakistan as a result of climate change (Climate change, global warming and shifting monsoon patterns increase the frequency and impact of such disasters).
Nearly one year on from the floods, although the floodwaters have receded in most of the affected areas, people still live near dirty and stagnant water, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), leading to a loss of agricultural livelihoods for women for two consecutive crop seasons. UNICEF estimates around 20 million people, including 9 million children, still need humanitarian aid in flood-affected areas. Many of the hardest-hit districts were already among the most impoverished and vulnerable places in Pakistan. What little people had was washed away, forcing them to start their lives over again, says an AP report.
Last week, I got a chance to visit Sanghar District and its nearby villages. What I saw was a heartfelt experience. Throughout our drive I found stagnant water, barren lands and wrecked houses on both sides of the highway. Food shortage and lack of work after the floods has added to their misery. They don’t even have clean drinking water and are exposed to hunger and waterborne illnesses such as diarrhoea.
“We lost almost everything in last year’s floods. We also lost our buffalo and goats. We are left with few beddings and charpoy. The whole village was submerged by the flood. We sat under the scorching sun for days on the road side and then we were shifted to makeshift tents. For months, we were supported by relief organisations who were distributing rashan for the flood victims. We came back to our house after four months when the water was dried off,” narrates 50-year-old Kunj, a resident of Shno Fakeer Umrani Goth in District Sanghar. “We are a family of 14 people. I have two sons and seven daughters. One of my sons is married with two kids. I am not educated. My husband is the head of our family. He takes all the decisions with regard to this family. I do labour work along with my children. I pick up cotton in the fields but we earn very little. We barely afford one chapati a day for each of the family members. We don’t have money to buy any grocery or vegetables. We usually eat roti and pyaz or potatoes. My daughters help me in house chores. From morning till evening, we are busy working. There is no respite for us,” laments Kunj.
According to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority, nearly three million acres of crops were destroyed. Even as the water recedes, farmers fear that salinisation from the floodwaters may have ruined these previously fertile lands for years to come.
When 20-year-old Mehnaz returned to her village – Shno Fakeer Umrani Goth in Sanghar District – after spending months in makeshift tents, she found her house was wrecked. “We had to bear so many losses as a result of last year’s floods. Our house was broken. Our whole village was affected by the flood. Everyone lost their occupation and regular income. All our agriculture land was drowned. All our rice and cotton crops were destroyed, resulting in a huge loss. We had few goats but the cruel flood killed them all,” illustrates Mehnaz, who has been married for two years and lives in a joint family with her parents-in-law, sisters and brothers’-in-law. “After the floods we were in a tight spot as all of us had lost our jobs then, NGO workers came to our rescue. They gave us some paid labour work. Since all the roads were blocked, we were told to repair the roads and in return we got wages,” she voices. “My father-in-law is the head of the family. He is sick but he takes all the decisions. My husband does khaiti bari (agriculture). Since all the land became barren because of stagnant water, it has now become difficult to cultivate any crop. We pick cotton in the field. It’s a tedious work but picking cotton is a delicate job that can be done only by children and women as their hands are soft,” informs Mehnaz. “My two sisters-in-law help me in household chores. Working in the fields seems difficult but I enjoy doing house chores,” she smiles. “In this inflation it has become difficult to sustain ourselves. Roti was the only thing that poor people used to eat easily but now even flour has become too expensive. Usually, we eat aloo (potatoes) or daal. Sometimes, we consume only mirchi and roti. Even vegetables are out of our reach. Having mutton and chicken is a distant dream,” she says, with a long sigh of despair.
45-year-old Bachal, another flood victim, who lives in Goth Fazal Laghari near Sanghar District, has her own sob story to tell. “Last year’s flood snatched everything from us; it also snatched our hopes and dreams for a better living. We lost almost everything in one go – our home, our belongings, our land, our goats. We couldn’t save anything,” laments Bachal.
For Bachal and her family, life is a constant struggle. “Circumstances have compelled us to live a compromised life. Before floods we used to live comfortably but not any longer,” tells Bachal. “Besides working in the field, we also stitch in order to survive. My husband is the head of our family. My daughter-in-law helps me in household chores. We only afford to eat roti and aloo. Mutton, chicken or even vegetables are simply out of our reach,” she elaborates.
“After the floods, our social life has come to a standstill. The flood has paralysed our community life. We used to meet and greet but, not anymore. No marriage took place last year with the exception of one or two nikahs and those were also done in complete austerity,” she highlights.
Mumtaz also shares the same views. “Our social life has also been greatly affected. So many weddings have been postponed because of such bad circumstances.”
All women told this scribe that they did not get any aid or help from the local authorities. No one came to their rescue with the exception of few humanitarian organisations that provided rashan and basic necessities to them when they were hit by the worst floods in the history of Pakistan.
According to recent findings, last year’s flooding has also severely damaged Pakistan’s crumbling healthcare infrastructure. In Sindh province, more than 1,000 health facilities have been fully or partially destroyed. The extensive damage to roads and communication networks further hinders access to clinics and hospitals. These barriers not only affect women and girls giving birth, but also those seeking access to contraception and other reproductive health services.
“There is no lady doctor in our village. If we get sick, we go to Sanghar city. Last year, so many pregnant women lost their babies or went through severe complications because of torrent, all the roads leading to hospital in Sanghar city were blocked,” notifies Mumtaz.
As per a recent Islamic Relief’s report, women and girls were particularly affected by the 2022 floods, with pregnant women still struggling to access maternal health services and girls most likely to be underweight. Many women displaced by the flooding still do not have safe private spaces to breastfeed, leading to poorer health for babies.
“In our village, we don’t have any kind of medical facility; neither a lady doctor. During the floods, it was a nightmare for expecting moms to go to the doctor. There were 4 to 5 women who were full time and they had to face a lot of difficulty in reaching hospital in Sanghar city, in order to deliver their babies,” expresses Mehnaz.
Highlighting the insufficient healthcare facilities in her village, Kunj voices, “Forget hospital, there is not even a single dispensary in our village. There is no doctor available. If someone gets sick, she/he has to go to Sanghar for the treatment. My husband is a heart patient. Last year, he had his operation and we didn’t have any money. I collected money from the village people, in order to get his operation done.”
The government should consider basic health facilities at shelters to save the life of pregnant women during deliveries in any disaster situations. The untrained health workers, staff members can harm women’s life and can create safeguarding and protection issues.
In most flood-affected areas, women are particularly facing hygiene issues. According to a UNICEF report, even after many months, people living in flood-affected areas remain deprived of safe drinking water, leaving families with no alternative but to drink and use potentially disease-ridden water. Women and children are fighting against diarrhoea, malaria, dengue fever, typhoid, acute respiratory infections, and painful skin conditions.
“A large number of women and children in our village got sick because of water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, typhoid, hepatitis, etc,” tells Mumtaz.
“We are compelled to live in unhygienic conditions. Since there are no separate bathrooms for women, it’s a task for us to take a bath. During our periods we only use cloth. There is no concept of using pads or sanitary napkins in villages,” comments Kunj.
Living in uncertainty:
When asked what future they foresee for themselves and for their children and if they are thinking of relocating, nearly all women ruled out the idea of shifting to other places. “From morning till evening, we are worried about how to feed our children. In such circumstances moving to another place, with no resources, is out of question. We see a bleak future for our children,” states Kunj.
“We are left with no money neither we have means to shift anywhere else,” says Mumtaz. “We are living under constant fear; what if we get floods again, how we are going to cope? We are not prepared. We are very apprehensive regarding our children’s future,” she adds.
For Bachal, this is the land she knows and she cannot imagine moving anywhere else. “We feel very vulnerable and our quite exposed to climate change. Most of us have gone into depression as we don’t know what future unfolds for us or for our children,” says a despair Bachal.
According to Mehnaz, their future is ambiguous. “With no basic facilities, clean drinking water, no medical aid and no education, what can we think of our future?” she questions.
All is not lost…
However, all is not lost. There are organisations that are doing their bit to bring some improvement and meaningful change in the lives of distraught women. “Government and humanitarian stakeholders should consider the special needs of women during and post-disaster response phases, where women can respectfully access relief goods while the safeguarding and protection issues of women can also be addressed by aligning Disaster Risk Reduction planning with legal, policy and institutional frameworks,” stresses Hussain Jarwar, CEO of Indus Consortium, an NGO based in Islamabad. “We, in partnership with Oxfam in Pakistan, have started a short-term programme. The overall objective of the project is to share women safeguarding and protection issues for gender-inclusive disaster risk management through informed decision making process and participation of women at all levels. Hopefully, we will be able to present women’s needs to policy platforms at the government level which will give some relief to these unfortunate women in the coming months,” vows Jarwar.