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Journey inside Pakistan’s flood zone reveals how the poorest were hit the hardest

Local residents wait as aid material is loaded onto boats in Dadu, Sindh, Pakistan, on September 13.  (Saiyan Bashir for The Washington Post)
Local residents wait as aid material is loaded onto boats in Dadu, Sindh, Pakistan, on September 13. (Saiyan Bashir for The Washington Post)

SUKKUR, Pakistan — By the time the Pakistani government recognized the severity of the unprecedented flooding that hit the country this summer and sounded an alert, it was already too late for millions of families to flee the torrential waters. And almost all of them were among the most vulnerable in the country, trapped by poverty and neglect, their lives and livelihoods are already a daily struggle.

Deep in Pakistan’s disaster zone, the worst floods in the country’s recorded history have highlighted how the poor, both here and abroad, are often disproportionately exposed to the ravages of climate change.

As heavy monsoon rains entered their second week of July with no sign of abating, Amina Gadehi knew the flooding would be different this year. She and a group of other villagers approached the elected village leader and asked him to allow them to camp temporarily on higher ground on his property.

“He told us: ‘I am not responsible for you. Find your own shelter,’” Gadehi recalled, his jaw clenching in anger.

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She and dozens of others in her town had no savings to pay for the trip or temporarily rent another place. They stayed in their houses waiting for the rains to subside. But when the water began to lap at the window frames, Gadehi and her family decided it was their last chance to escape it. For nearly an hour, Gadehi said, she and her husband, their five children and the few cows and buffalo they managed to save walked through waist-deep water to a relative’s house in another village on slightly higher ground.

Now they are trapped there, surrounded by water. The only boats that can rescue them are not big enough for their cattle, too valuable to leave behind.

Thousands of families like Gadehi’s have been stranded in villages that have become islands. The floods have killed some 1,500 people, according to the Pakistani government, and displaced tens of thousands.

Long before the government declared a national emergency in August, people here in Sindh province were begging local officials to act, to help relocate families and livestock and reinforce dikes to divert water, according to dozens of flood survivors.

But they said that, in many cases, they were left to fend for themselves until it was too late.

Warnings weren’t enough

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Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister, said a national emergency was not declared earlier because officials did not know the downpour would continue for so long. “I don’t think any administration or government could have been prepared for a biblical flood like this,” she said in an interview. “There was no modeling for what we saw.”

She said officials at her ministry and other government agencies began to fear unusually severe flooding as early as June, but added that it was not until August that they realized the scale of the crisis. “The weather department started telling me, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this,’” she said. “I started getting calls late at night, everyone saying ‘We’re in shock.’”

Ahsan Iqbal, who heads Pakistan’s national flood response center, said the government could not have been better prepared or moved faster to respond to the crisis once it began to unfold. “The scale of the calamity is so great that it is beyond the administrative and financial resources of a country like Pakistan,” said Iqbal, who is also Pakistan’s planning minister. “There is no way we could have mitigated this level of damage.”

Iqbal said he believes a series of early evacuation warnings saved thousands of lives. “The death toll could have been at least three or four times higher if it weren’t for the weather early warning system,” he said.

But for millions, warnings alone were insufficient.

Subhan Ali Buriro recalled when the warnings began to sound in his village. Residents with means quickly moved to the provincial capital, Karachi, and other urban areas. But without any savings, Buriro could only afford to move his wife and his four children to the home of a close relative. “We had nowhere to go,” he said.

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He believed that the concrete house would withstand the rains and rapidly rising waters. But within days, the roof collapsed, burying his four children under chunks of cement and other debris. “It was dark and I couldn’t hear anything because of the rain,” she said. “I started digging.”

Tens of thousands refuse to flee submerged Pakistani villages

After an hour, he and some neighbors retrieved the children and rushed them to the hospital, but the only doctor present was unable to save them. “I saw them breathe for the last time,” Buriro said. “I felt like the whole sky had fallen on me.”

Buriro and neighbors drained part of a nearby cemetery, digging for hours to create shallow burial plots in the waterlogged earth.

“If I had more resources, of course we would have immediately moved to a safer place,” Buriro said. “If we weren’t poor, my children would still be alive.”

Accusations of empty promises

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The worst affected parts of Pakistan are also some of the poorest. The rural province of Sindh has some of the lowest literacy rates in the country, severely limited access to health care, and minimal infrastructure.

Political power in the province has been dominated for generations by its largest landowners. In many areas, landowners are not only the main employers, but also the elected leaders.

“We cannot oppose our leaders because we depend on them for everything,” Gadehi said. “They visit us during the elections and make us promises, but we don’t get anything in return.”

Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah dismissed complaints from those affected by the floods as “politically charged innuendo and petty narratives”.

US Increases Pakistan Flood Aid With Military Airlift

In a written statement, he said “the Sindh government is solely focused on providing rescue and relief to the people of Sindh without any prejudice.” He blamed “factions with malicious intent” for spreading “misinformation.”

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But he said that when a “legitimate complaint” is received, officials face “strict action” and “several” irrigation, health and other government officials have been suspended.

The deprivations that left many Pakistanis especially vulnerable to flooding continue plague them in its aftermath. In Dadu’s overwhelmed central hospital, wards are overflowing and patients desperate for medical care fill the corridors. Doctors who struggled to provide medical care even before the floods now turn away hundreds of people every day due to lack of space.

“The children we are seeing now were already sick before they were displaced,” said Faram Gohar Lashari, a pediatrician at Dadu central hospital. “Now, this suffering will only increase.” She spoke haltingly as she tended to the stream of sick children brought into her office. Malaria and other waterborne diseases are on the rise, as are skin and chest infections from unsanitary conditions in makeshift displacement camps.

“Almost all of these children are malnourished and that makes them more vulnerable to other diseases,” Lashari said. He predicted that those dying from disease and infection in the coming weeks will exceed the death toll from the floods.

In a hallway, a woman lay on a bench in and out of consciousness, in need of emergency care. The doctors said they couldn’t help her. They were too busy dealing with dozens of other patients.

Doctors and nurses at the hospital said they have repeatedly asked provincial authorities for more supplies and staff, but have yet to receive any. Shah, the chief minister of Sindh, denied claims that health workers are not getting the support they need.

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In a camp outside the city of Dadu, Saima Lund said she struggled to keep her children healthy even before the floods. Her husband, a day laborer, could barely afford to feed her family. All five of her children suffered from malnutrition as babies. Only three have survived.

Shifa, Lund’s youngest, was born just as the monsoon rains began to hit her village. When her family fled from her home, the floodwaters had washed away all the grain they had accumulated for the year. At the camp, Shifa’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. “All I have to feed my family is one bag of cooked rice a day,” Lund said, referring to the government donations.

When Shifa developed a high fever and refused to eat, Lund walked with her for nearly an hour to the nearest hospital, but was turned away. Doctors had run out of supplies, she said.

“I’m afraid I’m going to lose my daughter,” Lund said, fanning the girl to try to keep her temperature down. “We had no medical care in my town, and now the town’s hospitals have nothing.”

Many parts of Sindh are expected to remain under water for months to come, and despair is growing among the hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

‘No one cares about us’: Pakistanis struggle to survive after floods

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During a recent boat delivery of emergency food supplies to a village outside the city of Khairpur Nathan Shah, a handful of people gathered at the water’s edge. Within minutes, a few patiently waiting families turned into an angry mob.

Aid workers from the Global Empowerment Mission, one of the few international groups operating deep within the flooded area, tried to get close enough to deliver bags of rice, cooking oil, sugar and tea, but the scene turned violent. Men, women and children competed for the goods. Some fell into the swampy mud. Police escorts attempted to calm the crowd, but it had grown too large and pushed the police back.

Emily Fullmer, who leads aid distribution for the group, said the reaction was not a surprise. As she made deliveries to different areas, her group had repeatedly been told to be the first to show up. No government officials or other aid groups had preceded them.

“Just like any human being on the planet, when you haven’t seen food, water, or medical care for weeks, things get very desperate, very quickly,” Fullmer said.

And despair levels are rising fastest in places that were experiencing high rates of poverty before they were hit by a natural disaster, he continued.

“Communities that are already struggling are the ones that are hit the hardest by climate disasters,” Fullmer said. “It’s unfair and unfortunate, but we really see it all over the world.”

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Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan contributed to this report.

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