Since July, torrential rains in Pakistan have caused flooding that washed out roads, homes and tracts of land, leaving millions destitute. Michelle Neukirchen is Catholic Relief Services' regional technical advisor for water, sanitation and hygiene in Asia, based in Afghanistan. She worked for CRS Pakistan from 2005 to 2008, helping with the earthquake recovery efforts there, and returned to assist with relief efforts after the devastating floods began. Recently, she spoke with Jennifer Hardy, New Media communications officer at CRS headquarters in Baltimore.
Can you tell me about your recent visit to northern Pakistan?
I just returned from the CRS office in Besham. We've worked in this area of Pakistan continuously since the 2005 earthquake. The purpose of my visit was to support our team as they plan further flood response efforts, especially in the areas of water, infrastructure and hygiene.
What stood out to you the most as you visited communities there?
The difficulty of moving from one location to another. In one area we visited, the entire length of road connecting villages to the local market was washed away. We hiked from the market to the village, and although it was only three kilometers (less than two miles) away, it took us over two hours to reach the community. We had to climb over boulders and scramble over loose rocks.
It's important that roads are rebuilt in the north as quickly and safely as possible. People had to travel long distances for food and medical care before the floods--now those journeys are more difficult, and may be impossible for someone who is very ill. We also have to remember that some people depend on getting to markets to make a living, so the limited access has become an income issue as well.
How does CRS plan to help with water and roads in the north?
CRS is beginning to lay out pathways and build culverts to improve market access, as well as constructing retaining walls to limit landslides. Engineering teams are also repairing water supply systems to restore safe water access close to homes. We're teaching people about proper hygiene, water purification and water storage, which is essential to prevent disease. CRS is distributing water purification tablets and also talking to people about boiling water if tablets run out.
Where are displaced people staying right now?
Some families are taking shelter in local schools. People do have extended families, so many are staying with relatives. A few families even had leftover materials from the 2005 earthquake, such as tents and tarps, and they were able to grab them before the floodwaters rose.
Are there any special concerns that affect women in Besham?
We saw some women carrying children out walking with their husbands toward the market. Women don't leave the household very often, for cultural reasons, so if you do see a woman walking, it's likely for a serious reason. The biggest impact on women is collecting water. Tap stands are no longer working so they have to collect water further from home, which compromises their privacy. Now families have to work together to access water and other services.
Tell me about the difference between the disaster in the north and in the south of the country.
The floods in northern Pakistan were sudden and violent. People had very little time to move to higher ground, and the water cut 100-foot-wide and 40-foot-high gashes out of mountainsides. Water delivery systems, roads, bridges--everything was destroyed by the sudden force of the water. People's land has just vanished. It's not a matter of waiting for waters to recede; their land is gone for good. And we have to think about shelter solutions in the north right away. Winter comes earlier in the north, so aid agencies will need to coordinate with the government to ensure needs for winterized shelters are met before the cold sets in.
More people are affected in the south, but it's a different type of flood. The water that has inundated the lowlands is affecting people on a larger scale. Entire communities are displaced in the south, but their land, although damaged, will be there after the floodwaters go down. Only after the water recedes will we know the level of overall damage to homes, infrastructure and farmland.
What unique challenges will aid workers face with this disaster?
When you look at the whole country it becomes a complex response. The issues in Besham are completely different than in the south where there is standing water. In the north there is widespread, permanent damage to land. In the south, entire communities are displaced. The situations are very different. It's challenging us and other agencies to be flexible with our response, which must reflect the unique needs in both settings.
CRS is well-positioned to respond in both the north and the south. In the north, the communities' needs will be somewhat similar to what we saw in the 2005 earthquake. We already have established expert teams positioned to engineer solutions well-suited to rugged terrain.
In the south, the flood patterns and people's needs are similar to what we have seen in Pakistan's 2007 floods, as well as annual flooding in India and Bangladesh. We can draw on CRS' national and regional experience and expertise to respond appropriately in Pakistan's southern lowlands.
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