UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie and IRC Country Director Pakistan Shabnam Baloch with flood affectees in Sehwan, Sindh Image Credit: Supplied

As Pakistan tries to make sense of the enormity of the devastation caused by floods, the picture is bleak, foreboding, depressing. Many cities, towns, and villages of Sindh, Balochistan, south Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been partially, greatly, or fully affected. The 2022 floods have hit more than thirty-three million people—their houses partially or fully destroyed, their livestock dead, their crops perished, their livelihoods finished, their unassuming world turned upside down. 

Their biggest loss is the death of their loved ones—more than sixteen hundred people have died. The number of dead children is more than five hundred. 

Working amidst the destruction are Pakistani and foreign social welfare and rescue organisations. Their unending empathy and timely assistance save lives, provide water, food, medical facilities, and shelter. Without the work of these organizations, the death toll would have been higher, the misery greater, the despair more haunting. 

Prominent among these organizations is the International Rescue Committee (IRC). IRC’s commitment and assistance during the ongoing flood devastation is a stellar manifestation of humanity existing beyond borders, sans identity, sans embargoes, sans discrimination.

IRC, under the empathetic and all-encompassing leadership of David Miliband, UK’s former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, “helps people affected by humanitarian crises—including the climate crisis—to survive, recover and rebuild their lives. Founded at the call of Albert Einstein in 1933, the IRC is now at work in over forty crisis-affected countries as well as communities throughout Europe and the Americas. [IRC] deliver[s] lasting impact by providing health care, helping children learn, and empowering individuals and communities to become self-reliant, always seeking to address the inequalities facing women and girls.”

In Pakistan, IRC’s principal emphasis is on helping the most vulnerable, the displaced, and the invisible. IRC is focused on education, health, COVID-19 response, Afghan refugees’ rehabilitation, economic recovery—livelihood support, including skill development, entrepreneurship and small grants for business development—and water and sanitation projects in the context of environmental health.

Leading IRC’s projects in Pakistan and aid and rehabilitation programmes for the flood-affected people is Shabnam Baloch, IRC Country Director Pakistan. Baloch and her team’s work is quiet but expansive, substantial, inclusive, and empathetic. 

For Gulf News, I asked IRC’s Shabnam Baloch a few questions:

What is IRC’s assessment of the 2022 flood destruction in Pakistan?

Due to unprecedented heavy rains and catastrophic flash floods, Pakistan is currently witnessing its greatest humanitarian catastrophe in ten years. One-third of Pakistan is now submerged because of the largest flooding in the nation's seventy-five-year history, with certain areas resembling “a little ocean.” This year, the monsoon season started early, from June 14, and continues to date. Pakistan received more than sixty percent of its total normal rainfall in just a few weeks, and that led to the sudden onset of crisis—heavy rains resulted in urban and flash floods, landslides, damaged dams, and glacial lake outburst floods across Pakistan, particularly affecting Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh provinces.

Resultantly, more than 1,600 people have died and 128,631 are injured. Government of Pakistan has issued warnings of constant extreme monsoon downpours, cautioning that it could take up to six months for the flood levels to recede.

Destruction of critical infrastructure has created severe access constraints for civilians and government officials working to reach the affected populations.

This disaster has aggravated the pre-existing climate, economic, and public health crises, with women, girls, and other vulnerable groups bearing the brunt. More than 6.4 million people are in need of relief assistance and humanitarian aid. It is high time the international community collaborated with local actors and the government of Pakistan to respond to immediate needs while also providing rehabilitation efforts and long-term preventions for communities.

The priority needs identified through various assessments conducted by various actors, and early needs identification conducted by IRC in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan show that people are in immediate need of shelter, food, and lifesaving items. Our partners and staff on ground also mention water pumping as a critical need.

- Priority needs: Food ranks first, followed by shelter, means of subsistence, health, and WASH

- Economic well-being and food security: Impacted individuals have difficulty meeting their families' basic needs for food and other necessities

- WASH and health: Difficulty accessing the closest primary healthcare institution

- Safety: Under the current scenario, people do not feel safe at all. Women who are pregnant or nursing are most vulnerable, followed by females and adolescent girls, children, people with different abilities, people who have chronic illnesses, and members of minority groups

- Protection: Overall, respondents were of the view that protection concerns have increased very significantly

Respondents are of the view that people in their communities feel distressed due to limited or no access to basic services, property loss, and lack of information about services and safety issues. Majority of the respondents across different districts also reported that there were serious problems in their communities because people don’t have enough income, money, and resources to live in the current situation.

What are the key aspects of IRC’s flood emergency response?

The IRC is responding to the most immediate needs through integrated protection, education, psychosocial support, and protection services to the flood-affected communities in the districts of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, and Punjab. The intervention aligns with IRC’s Early Need Identification findings, response interventions prioritized by the National and Provincial Disaster Management Authorities, and Global Humanitarian Standards, such as sphere standards, gender-based violence guidelines, INEE, and Child Protection Minimum Standards. 

The IRC, keeping in view the losses and scale of emergency, will be focusing its efforts in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh. The most important aspect of the emergency response plan is to provide humanitarian assistance to people who are at the highest level of vulnerability criteria and to prioritize the most vulnerable households affected by the floods.

The emergency response plan is segregated:

Protection: IRC has expanded its protection programming by establishing dedicated women and girls’ safe spaces in the flood affected communities. We will implement GBV prevention and response activities using Girls Shine and Women Rise curriculums, SRH sessions and dignity kits, women networks, and services, and GBV case management services. Under Child Protection, IRC is providing safe spaces in most affected areas, CP case management, community-based child protection committees, and community awareness. As part of gender protection, IRC is offering protection case management, access to information, cash for protection and community-based protection.

Economic wellbeing: A combination of direct service provision and multipurpose cash transfers to best meet clients’ critical needs.

WASH: Provision of safe drinking water, hygiene kits, and sanitation services.

Education: IRC Pakistan, with a lens for rehabilitation needs, has already started working with potential partners and will continue to work on School Improvement Plans under education programming during the recovery phase. This will allow for increased enrollment, improved retention of girls and boys, and removal of the five barriers, including protection walls and wash facilities, to education.

Cash Transfers: Communities will be provided with multipurpose cash assistance, cash for work and conditional cash grants, depending on the context and needs identified through fresh data. This may include cost of agricultural inputs, shelter, and NFIs, which will enable people to prioritize their recovery as per their individual needs.

Non-Food Items: Keeping in view the upcoming winter, IRC will provide winterization kits and other essential items to the affected communities.

Health: The IRC will continue its services of primary health care and SRH in the affected areas through mobile health camps and health facilities.

So far [September 26], the IRC has provided humanitarian assistance to 160,483 people in the affected areas. Among the services that have already been rendered are distribution of non-food items, dignity and hygiene kits, food baskets, and establishment of medical camps and safe spaces.

Which are the biggest issues in the areas ravaged by 2022 floods?

Though other regions of Pakistan are also badly impacted, Sindh and Balochistan have sustained the greatest damage to human lives and infrastructure. Satellite data also reveals significant devastation in the Rojhan region in the southern part of Punjab. Homes along the Indus River’s banks have been destroyed, and many farming communities have lost their harvests. 

Flood waters have washed away roads, crops, infrastructure, and bridges, and have affected telecommunication services in some parts of Pakistan. A main supply route from the port city of Karachi was cut off for more than a week after a bridge linking it to Balochistan was swept away. Dozens of small dams in Sindh were overwhelmed.

Due to dangerous living conditions—particularly for displaced families—women, children, and people with disabilities are more likely to be abused and exploited during severe rains, floods, and displacement. Wellness of women and children in areas affected by flooding is significantly impacted by a lack of secure access to services and essentials as well as vulnerability to violence. Harassment, domestic and family violence, and fear of sexual violence are all substantial gender-based risks. 

Lack of access to medical care leads to more unplanned pregnancies and higher morbidity rates for married women. Given their inherent vulnerabilities, those who are pregnant, nursing, in adolescence, have a disability, are elderly, are hungry, or are otherwise vulnerable to violence, abuse, neglect, or exploitation are particularly at danger during this crisis. 

Inability of vulnerable groups to return to normal life and access essential services has been affected by the loss of livelihoods brought on by high rains and floods. Daily farm labourers and bricklayers have lost their employment, and it can take months for them to get back to work. It is anticipated that both child labour and school dropout rates will rise. 

Loss of livestock has increased vulnerability of the poor, particularly women who typically depend on livestock in rural regions for a portion of their income. 

Due to damaged or inaccessible health facilities, floods have also caused injuries and water-borne infections, necessitating the rapid delivery of health care. In some districts, government has started to respond with the aid of humanitarian organisations, but given the extent of the harm and human needs, more work and resources are required to get to all of the impacted districts where people are still waiting for assistance. 

Angelina Jolie visited villages hit by flooding and saw how the on-going rains have wreaked havoc on their daily lives. Image Credit: Supplied

UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie’s visit as part of IRC’s flood response is a very important step to emphasize Pakistan’s current plight on a global forum. What were the highlights of her visit?

Angelina Jolie was hosted in Pakistan by the IRC and our local partner as she was visiting Sindh’s flood-affected areas. Jolie visited villages hit by flooding and saw how the on-going rains have wreaked havoc on their daily lives. She spoke with women and children, many of whom are still trapped in places where humanitarian help is inaccessible and face a higher risk of abuse and violence. Families continue to sleep in camps or improvised shelters in other locations while they wait for additional assistance and essential life-saving services.

Jolie visited a makeshift shelter on a roadside after disembarking from a boat in Dadu. For a while, she sat with an elderly woman in her tent. The woman was hard of hearing and her granddaughter was playing the role of the mediator. The elderly woman told  Jolie how she had been running a fever for the last few days while she looked at the vast expanse of water what was just a month ago her neighbourhood. Food, water and pumping out water remains the highest need. While Ms Jolie spoke with the woman, her granddaughter played outside, without any protection from the weather or from the traffic on the road.

During her visit, Jolie warned that too many children were malnourished, and people needed urgent aid. She has requested the international communities to pitch in more to provide humanitarian assistance and arrange lifesaving relief actions. 

As IRC’s Country Director in Pakistan, how do you evaluate the scope of immediate assistance and long-term rehabilitation of millions of flood-affected Pakistanis?

Since June, Pakistan has been battered by heavy rains that have submerged one-third of the country. Although it is generally accepted that global climate change is altering climate patterns worldwide, we are still in the process of understanding how these changes will take place. When the hazards a community or a country face are continuously changing, it is extremely hard to identify risks and make plans for potential disasters.

Pakistan has made considerable strides with disaster risk reduction and preparedness planning in recent years, largely in the aftermath of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the 2010 floods. However, the scale of the current flooding is unprecedented. Not even the 2010 flood—which affected over 14,000 square miles and cost almost ten billion dollars—comes close to the scope of this event. 

Expanding disease surveillance, repairing damaged healthcare facilities, and ensuring that there is access to enough medication and medical supplies are some of the most important requirements. There is dire need for affected communities to have access to psychological support and mental health services. With time, it is anticipated that the level of destruction and needs would increase. All parties involved should devise strategies for continuous finance and resource provision while keeping longer-term disaster prevention and recovery in mind. This assistance should focus on grants and mechanisms that can support local actors rather than large loan packages that can exacerbate the existing economic challenges. Pakistan will need considerable assistance to respond to and recover from this event. 

In this situation, secondary hazards such as water-borne and zoonotic infections are a serious concern in the coming months. The immediate priority is lowering mortality and morbidity while also lowering the likelihood of these risks. 

In order to recover from the current crisis and make preparations for the upcoming disasters, Pakistan still has a long way to go. By aiding local actors, in both their immediate response and longer-term preventative and recovery initiatives, international players can contribute. 

Floods should also act as a warning for the Global North to dramatically cut emissions in order to spare the Global South—which is contributing the least to climate change—from the repercussions.