Tomorrow marks the six-month anniversary of the Pakistan superflood and along with other mega-disasters, such as the Haiti earthquake and Asian tsunami, it puts the spotlight on the way aid agencies help people recover from crises.
In Pakistan, the situation is still very serious. More than 20 million people – one in every ten people in the country – have been affected by the floods and with hundreds of thousands still dependent on food aid, the first steps to recovery have barely begun.
I can understand why people might criticise and find it strange that more progress has not been made. Even as an aid worker with some understanding of the context, I was still surprised by the situation I found when I was deployed to Pakistan in October. I was helping with the distribution of emergency relief in the southern province of Sindh and I found that our team was the first to reach some people with aid even though the monsoon rains had begun in July.
Part of the reason for this is the sheer scale of the disaster. In terms of effect, as in the devastation it caused to infrastructure and the number of people affected, it is larger than the Boxing Day tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti combined. A fifth of Pakistan has been affected, covering an area the size of the United Kingdom. The disaster also unfolded over the course of several weeks. Its effects were not as immediate as an earthquake’s are, for example the instantaneous razing to the ground of an entire city, and because the waters took so long to flow from one end of the country to the other, different areas are at different stages of the emergency.
In the areas where people can return home they are finding a level of devastation similar to the aftermath of an earthquake. Over five million acres of cropland were destroyed, almost two million homes have been damaged or destroyed and infrastructure such as roads and bridges have been damaged or washed away.
Where the waters have gone down crops and fertile land remain buried under several feet of silt. People cannot grow food for themselves and their families, let alone enough to sell at market.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of people in southern areas are still unable to return home as thousands of acres of land are still flooded. In Sindh province residents live in a squalid, watery wasteland where stagnant floodwaters covering fields are a serious health concern and make subsistence farming impossible.
The British Red Cross has learnt a lot from previous disasters and certainly our experience after the tsunami is informing a lot of our recovery work today. But at the same time it’s definitely not a case of ‘one size fits all’.
Every country and every disaster is unique and it’s vital for us to understand the context and the people before we start helping them recover. Although we assess the options available in each situation, we tend to focus on constructing shelter and sanitation facilities along with helping people re-establish ways of making a living as these are areas in which we have developed expertise and can have the best impact on people’s recovery.
Finding a job is the top priority for most people after the initial effects of a disaster pass, although how we approach this can be very different depending on the context. Primarily, however, how we work with communities to recover from disasters is based on discussions with those affected and their families to ensure the support we can provide is based on their priorities.
Although the Pakistan floods began almost six months ago, the scale is so huge the operation is still very much in the emergency relief phase. However, as plans for longer-term recovery are developed, one thing to consider is how to help people prepare better for future disasters.
Because there’s no point in doing recovery without building people’s resilience to future disasters at the same time. Without this, people will only end up in the same sort of crisis all over again.
After the destruction caused by Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh in 2007, the British Red Cross worked with several communities to relocate them from their precarious homes by the sea, where many had lost their homes and livelihoods.
As well as helping families build new, stronger homes, which would protect them more in future cyclones, we gave them fruit trees. This not only minimises the risk of soil erosion around their homes, it also gives them an additional source of income.
In Pakistan, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has helped more than two million people with emergency relief, which will still be needed in some areas for some time to come. It is also planning to help 130,000 families get back on their feet and recover their livelihoods over the next two years.
Working alongside the government of Pakistan and co-ordinating with other aid agencies, it’s about getting people in a position where they are stronger and more able to cope.
Long-term recovery may not be as sexy as emergency response but it’s just as vital when it comes to saving and improving lives.
Find out more about what the Red Cross is doing in Pakistan
Images © Sarah Oughton/BRC