I joined ActionAid Pakistan in November 2010 when the devastating flood had just hit the country and its impact was still unrolling. ActionAid had initiated a timely and well-coordinated emergency response. Field teams were working day and night to reach people with food, water, shelter and other necessities.
There were many challenges, including those related to access and security. Delay in government’s response and lack of coordination at different levels was frustrating the flood-hit people. It was a testing time for the whole nation.
Witnessing the Damage
I am not sure if words can justly depict the scale of wreckage that 2010 floods caused. Fortunately the death toll was small, but the wiped out fields, cut away land, and hundreds of shelterless people with no money or food gave a clear prediction of forthcoming famine, hunger and malnutrition.
I visited the field areas and met with on-the-ground partners and communities to hear their first hand feedback, concerns and suggestions. As we drove in the outskirts of Multan (capital of south Punjab), I saw families living like gypsies on the road side. Children were barely dressed and pale. My local companion told me they had been prosperous people who grew their own food and sold milk, poultry and grain in the local market before floods took all that away.
They produced food for the entire country but now they are forced to live like beggars
I spoke to a 45 year-old woman named Naseem Mai, who told me she and her husband were farm labourers and kept a stock of grains in their house. They had two goats and a buffalo. All was gone. The family of five children had been surviving on nothing but dry bread for days. She said "Despite being poor we never went to bed hungry before, my children ask for food but I have nothing to give them. I fear hunger will kill us.”
Helping people fight hunger
From national level statistics, field data and our personal interaction with the flood-affected communities, it was established that any sustainable and effective flood response programme will have to focus on building people’s resilience to fight hunger and food insecurity, and enabling them to start growing food again. This was a daunting task with many factors involved and several challenges.
First things first, we speeded up and scaled up our food distribution programme, especially in areas where other agencies or government had not reached. We started providing kitchen garden kits to women, and seeds and fertiliser to farmers whose land had not been completely wiped out so that at least some agricultural activity could start ahead of the new growing season.
At the same time, we held consultations with farmers’ networks to develop campaigns for long term rehabilitation of food growing infrastructure. ActionAid supported small farmers to organise protest rallies, press conferences and meetings with provincial and district government officials to lobby for their immediate demands including allocation of government’s land and provision of seeds and cash to small farmers. From the very onset, ActionAid Pakistan prioritised women in its flood response as due to cultural reasons, they had not received much support from the government.
One year on
July 29th marks the one year anniversary of 2010 floods. It is a time to evaluate what has been done and what still needs to be done to help flood-hit people back on their feet. It is a long and arduous task and ActionAid, as part of the larger humanitarian community, is committed to it.
We have organised a series of events to tap learning and experiences which will help to inform our future planning. One particularly important event was ‘women’s caravan’ which ActionAid organised in the Federal Capital Islamabad in May 2011. Women farmers and landless field labourers from Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces put up a unique visual stunt comprising theatre performances and traditional songs, presented on top of a 40 foot float in the heart of the city. It grabbed attention from media, civil society and policy makers. Women also marched in front of the parliament chanting their demands. The stunt was aligned with the budget debate going on inside the parliament building- the right time to press for funds allocation, specifically for women’s rehabilitation.
It was inspiring to be part of this, and to be able to speak with women leaders, some of whom had travelled over 10 hours to be in Islamabad. Their energy, clarity of vision and articulation of issues was impeccable. Despite the suffering, their spirits had not been dampened, and they were resolute in demanding their rights from the state. I spoke to a young women leader from Kot Adu, 17 year-old Saira, who told me "perhaps it is difficult for politicians who decide our fate to travel to far flung villages. But they should not worry, we have come ourselves to give them some facts and tell them about our real problems." I thought she made a lot of sense.
The devastation is huge and it will take years to rebuild what has been lost. However, the process has begun. It is too soon to gauge success of our policy engagements, but some heartening improvements are already visible, especially a stronger people’s agency, women’s leadership, and communities’ resolve to rebuild their lives. It is these strengths that ActionAid hopes to build on, as we move ahead with our flood emergency response.