The monsoon floods in Pakistan have killed thousands and affected an estimated twenty million people across several provinces. According to development organizations working in the country, the humanitarian crisis is yet another blow for Pakistan's rural women. With increasing effects of climate change, the longer-term situation can only get worse.
According to the Pakistani government, a fifth of the country has been affected by the flooding due to monsoon rains. The initial death toll of around 1,600 was comparatively low for an international disaster. But on August 3, a week after the monsoon flooding began in earnest, the World Health Organization called the situation “the worst floods on record.” On August 19, the WHO reported that 200 clinics and hospitals had been destroyed and warned that forty years' worth of health developments in Pakistan had been lost. By August 20, twenty million people had felt the impacts of the floods, and millions had lost homes, crops, livestock, and other property.
I spoke with Parveen Naz of the Balochistan Volunteers Foundation based in Quetta. Naz spent over a week trapped in flood-affected areas near Jaffarabad district. She told me “the average water level is eight feet above normal. The district's two cities, Dera Allah Yaar and Usta Mohammed, are in critical situations and many villages are destroyed.” Naz also said 250,000 acres of rice fields have been washed out in Jaffarabad district alone. In addition, over 7,000 internally displaced families – those fleeing violence between the Pakistani military and Taliban forces in the North of the country – were already living in the open or under tents along the main highways. Others, she says, “are living in the floodwater of their own villages.”
According to the Red Cross, the floods will have affected many of the three million people displaced by fighting in 2009, some of whom had recently started to return home. Local freelance journalist Rooh ul Amin reports similar problems from the 'Tribal Areas' adjoining Afghanistan. There, says Amin, refugees in Internally Displaced Persons' camps were already complaining of inadequate food, water, sanitation, and healthcare. Western NGO workers on the ground have been unable to access some refugee camps and villages because of fallen bridges and washed-out roads. UNICEF staff working with Afghan refugees in one encampment was ordered to evacuate due to the threat of rising floodwaters. Amin emphasized the impact on women, saying that “poverty, mass exodus, and displacement have given birth to social evils, including sexual attacks.”
On a recent visit to the UK, Arbab Shakar, Oxfam's Pakistani Program Officer for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change, told campaigners how severe weather conditions have affected Pakistan's population in recent years. He emphasized the worst problems are being faced by Pakistan's women. Balochistan, for example, the scene of many of the current floods, has suffered over a decade of drought. Many of the women now made homeless by flooding encountered increasingly difficult day-to-day situations even before the floods. “She has more than an hour's walk to the nearest source of water for drinking, cooking, and washing,” Shakar says of a typical rural woman from the province. “Women are responsible for the household's water, but the water table is going down after over ten years of droughts. There is a huge issue of floods, drought, and military displacement, which affects everyone. In Pakistan 40% of the overall population live in poverty, but [that is] 60% of women.”
Parveen Naz confirms that in the current disaster women are facing the greatest problems. In Balochistan, she says, women, children and old people living in flooded areas are most affected by water-borne diseases and are least able to access those relief supplies that have started to arrive. In Sindh, says Naz, “Women and children are living on the roads and have no shelter. They are dying there, and they are getting no help from their own nation.
The problems of declining rainfall might seem a million miles away from the current devastation, but, says Arbab Shakar, the problems are closely related. Drought and flooding, he states, are both part of a pattern of weather changes that have become apparent to the communities he works with. Some areas with over a decade's drought are close to mountain regions that suffer from deadly flash floods, like those that have displaced millions in recent weeks. The fast-moving floodwater may only raise the regional water table for a short time. Deforestation and desertification make land more susceptible to flash floods, where plant cover once absorbed excess rainfall.
Aid agencies say that weather-related disasters are getting more frequent and larger in scale. Where such events were once rare catastrophes, they are now an annual cycle. “We often talk to older people who never saw floods or droughts until recently,” says Shakar. “I've visited areas of Balochistan where there isn't even enough drinking water - [areas] where the older people remember growing tomatoes and other crops.” In Sindh province, the combination of monsoon rains and the storm surges causes not just flooding, but leaves drinking water polluted and subjects animals and people to new diseases.
Research by Shakar and his colleagues shows that declining water supplies are breaking up communities because villagers can no longer maintain their livestock or grow basic crops. Sheep and goats, which are the main source of income for many families, are dying. This forces men to leave home to find cash jobs, and leaves women in charge of the family home. “It's men that traditionally take the animals to the grazing lands,” says Shakar. But if poverty forces fathers and husbands to leave, social norms are challenged. “In Balochistan we see communities where the women do take the livestock out for grazing, but there are a lot of safety issues if they are out late at night. With the drought, it can be a long way to the grazing land.”
According to Oxfam, local women's groups report a rise in cases of rape and kidnapping against women living in isolated homes and villages. The final resort for some families is for women to work away from home, often in jobs such as domestic labor - poorly paid and exposing them to exploitation and abuse. In addition, whether accompanying their livestock onto grazing land or trying to work or study outside the family home, women in Balochistan are increasingly subject to acid attacks and threats by Baloch traditionalists. Women are caught between religious and nationalistically-motivated violence and the need to feed themselves and their children while their male relatives are away from home.
Even in the midst of a huge humanitarian crisis, Parveen Naz emphasizes the need to protect the environment. While she stresses emergency supplies of food, water, medicine, and tents are needed, she urges “please consider the ecosystems everywhere. Disturbing the environment will just aggravate the situation in the future.”
Climate changes that have already taken place mean aid agencies best known for disaster relief now find themselves having to plan programs to prevent future catastrophes. Short-term aid projects have been replaced with longer-term schemes, such as erecting raised buildings in Sindh and South Punjab that serve as schools for part of the year and can provide refuge from rising floodwaters.
But, says Oxfam's Arbab Shakar, the scale of the problem is growing beyond the scope of individual organizations. “We need the government to acknowledge that climate change is something that is affecting Pakistan, and that they need to act on it and allocate budgets for major infrastructure projects such as sea walls.” He goes on to emphasize the international community also needs to act on this. “They need to realize that it's not just terrorism we're dealing with in Pakistan. It's disasters that are getting worse every single year. There is loads and loads of money coming in to fight against terrorism, but we need the government of Pakistan and the international community to find ways to address these global climate issues too.”