Friday, 17 December 2010

Pakistan floods, firewood and recovery

A school front door in Jacobabad.
The August 2010 floods in Pakistan dwarf any other humanitarian crisis for decades, well, on record probably (at least since we started this aid-effort thing. The measuring stick we can use to say "it's bigger than the last" is not how many people perished, but how many survived and need help to survive, rebuild, recover.

So in summer this year the monsoon rains opened up with all the built up ferocity of a planets' worth of energy, heat and smoke from a continent on fire (Russia, Portugal, etc.), droughts across Africa, floods in South America, a mighty freeze in Europe the winter before that has to balance out somewhere. And so it rained. The mighty Indus that flows from the craggy North to the desert South of this amazing country swelled and burst into irrigation channels built by the British a hundred or so years before, channelling water where it sholdn't have been, sweeping away decades of community. Luckily, most people had time to move out before the water (less than two thousand people died, amazingly few).

Camps of returnees, in the shadow of their former homes.  Jacobabad, Sindh. 
So, I joined the enormous humanitarian community in October to do my bit (it's what I do, rather did, before building things out of straw and mud) and in November had a look around in Sindh, the Southern province, home of Karachi, a port to the Arabian sea and beyond.  Here over 1.2 million homes are thought to have been destroyed, displacing over seven million people (more than Scotland entire!).
We decided to visit Dadu and Jacobabad, the two districts al of which lost the most houses - about 150,000 each, and see how people were coping. Photos say more than I could... First we stopped in at a camp, for a few thousand folk

Cattle, we're told are people's biggest asset. They fled together and live as an extended family. Cows cost a fortune here and loosing one could cripple your finances. They eat straw mostly, which has go to be fairly nutrient-less, but hey.

In the camp,
a hand pump at work, recently installed by
Root Work, a local NGO working with Concern
an Irish NGO, who in turn have British taxpayers cash,
via the UK's dept for int'l development.
Confused? You should be. 

So we travelled through Dadu, a district that lost around 180,000 houses (at 7 people per house that's a lot of people without a home).

Over here, there! Our village is ruined. there's nothing left.
Come and help out place (we were visiting some other community
of returnees. Our efforts are considerable (millions of pounds into all kinds
of services) but it barely touches the surface of the need. 

In the camps, possibly 10 to 40kms from their former homes, people can receive food, tents, health care, water... So there's an attraction to remain? Yes, but people don't seem to: as soon as their lands emerge from the flood waters they're off - partly to make sure someone else doesn't grab their land. There's a really entrenched feudal system of landlords and peasant / landless farmers here. It's hard to know who of these people owned their land, control their own destinies, but from what I've heard it's one of the biggest challenges. 

So, cooking: See the cow dung drying in the sun, makes for good cooking fuel, saves money. Stuck in camps people don't have access to their usual source of firewood, so they pay about $1 a day for sticks and roots.  This exposes a major problem here - inefficient cooking systems.  Local landscapes are denuded, there are literally millions of people cutting and chopping their way through the undergrowth and the canopy, to burn semi dry or just green wood to sizzle up their meals.  There's little evidence that anyone has mapped out the implication of this over the next five or ten years: what will happen if this continues, this size of population cooking their way through these few remaining trees?

Especially frustrating when you know that alternatives exist that really work: fuel efficient stoves (at least to slow down the disaster), solar cooking (ovens, parabolic water heaters, oil tank heaters, and more), biogas (cooking from the gas of our poo, or our cows poo, or both).  

The humanitarian machine is incredibly fixed into its way of doing things, but it can change. It's taken years but mainstreaming concepts around gender equality and to a lesser extent protection (human rights) is becoming more recognised.  Environmental impact is starting to appear as an overarching / "cross-cutting"  issue but most people and organisations don't understand the link between energy, environment and human communities so it's given lip-service and spin.  In fact, from an environmental perspective our aid operations are catastrophic. Consider the overall pollutants and carbon emissions of the millions of products we import from the far corners of the globe, the tens of thousands of air flights, air lifts, truck days and so on.  Do we count this up? No, don't even discuss it! We are, it seems, immune to the carbon magnifying glass. "hey, we're saving lives out here, don't hassle me with that tree hugging shit" is the general impression you'll get if you bring it up. 

People in return. It turns out that vast numbers of displaced just moved out to neighbouring districts which remained dry and found work, settled down with families or friends, and were not completely exposed and vulnerable. They managed. The network of family support is enormous, low profile, goes unrecorded and ancient.  Supporting all this is the diaspora who send millions of dollars worth of cash each month to their extended family back in the homeland. 

The traditional Katcha house, make of local earth and bits of straw. Most of these just melted away when the floods came and inundated the walls. Most brick walls that used mud mortar suffered the same fate, but some survived. The challenge now is to find ways to reinforce these earthen walls.  There's lots of work and discussions going on around this, but I'll have to leave it for another post. 

I seriously wanted to dive onto that hay cart and carry on our trip by those means. So it would take a few more days, or weeks, but that's OK.  Nice to see the wooden wheels still in action, and the hay stacked on carts. Like in Romania, though there they have horses and car tyres.
And their hay is cut grass, this is cut straw and has far less food/nutritional value than hay.
This stuff finds its way into the mud walls (otherwise they wouldn't hold together so well).

What remains, after this trip, is an amazing friendliness and warmth from everyone we met.  Despite everything that's stacked up against them: a brooding civil war, the meddling of our Western powers in their affairs, the crippling corruption and the injustices that rule their lives, they are happy to share a cup of tea and discuss ideas.


Monica said...

Beautiful pictures, great captions. Incredible how those chapatis are made on what looks like a hot stone! It's so hard for any Western imagination to capture the magnitude of such an event! A monsoon would equate to a moderate November drizzle, the displacement of millions would bring to mind Glastonbury, maybe. Hence the 'What's all the fuss about' attitude. Endless media coverage of wars and disasters doesn't help...
Perversely, it calls for a larger disaster next time, a bigger massacre to put in print, a more graphic death.
That's why it's so refreshing to find a way back into the daily details of life - a girl cooking chapatis on a hot stone, an overloaded truck (some good firewood there I reckon!), an old man drinking his tea sitting on a crate, under the only tree for miles... keep them coming!

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