Getting ready for flood season
Op-Ed By Joanna Reid, Head of the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), Pakistan.
Like many thousands of people in Sindh and Punjab, the life of Fatima from Ghokti in southern Sindh was never the same after the 2013 monsoon floods. The floods destroyed her home, her community and the harvest on which her family relied. She had to spend two years living in a basic tent with her 10 children and her disabled husband, with large debts owed to their landlord to repay for the seeds lost in the floods.
This year, fewer people than normal have been affected by the monsoon floods so far –116 people have been reported killed and 582 houses damaged or destroyed. While this is a quiet year, the monsoon will have already left hundreds of stories as tragic as Fatima’s. We all of course remember the tragedy of the 2010 floods, where 18 million people were affected, with houses washed away, and land under water for weeks at a time and years taken for people to recover.
The 2016 monsoon season is not over and around 8 million people remain at risk of flooding across Pakistan each year. Their vulnerability is increased by cycles of indebtedness, malnutrition, poor access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and the monsoon flooding occurring at the same time as wheat and rice harvests. The annual monsoon rains are vital for the country, bringing much-need water, and enriching the soil for planting. However, these floods can also be catastrophic for families and communities like Fatima’s who have little choice but to live along the river catchment areas.
This is why UK aid distributed by DFID – the UK’s Department for International Development – is at the forefront of humanitarian assistance in Pakistan, developing innovative and long-term solutions to mitigate the risks of floods and to break the cycles of vulnerability, as well as providing emergency response for those affected by natural disasters and displacement.
In just three years, we have designed and rolled out the building of 52,000 flood-resilient shelters in areas most at risk of floods in northern Punjab and Southern Sindh through partnerships with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the non-governmental organizations ACTED and HANDS. The houses are made out of lime-stabilized soil bricks and, because they have withstood the test of flood waters, they have now become a standard in flood-affected areas. Initially families wanted ‘modern’ fired-brick houses (‘pukka’), which were seen as stronger than the traditional mud (‘katcha’) shelters. Once the flood-resilient capacity of these lime-treated houses became apparent, there was an increasing acceptance of these shelters, especially as they also provide better insulation and cooling properties, cost a fraction of brick houses, and withstand floods.
DFID’s humanitarian policy is based around not just restoring people to the position they were in before a disaster, but actually on ‘building back better’. In the case of flood-affected families in Pakistan, this meant we began talking with communities about how to improve their lives overall, and how to help them better manage new disasters. We have introduced smokeless stoves to the same communities, which has greatly improved living conditions for families, particularly for women and girls. These simple structures have resulted in fewer eye infections from smoke as women no longer have to bend over the fire to fan it, and they use significantly less fuel. This also means that less time is spent gathering firewood, a task that generally falls to girls. And, of course, the stoves are built with lime-stabilized soil, which mean that they can stand up to the heavy rains and flooding. In many communities, families have taken the basic design for the stoves and personalised them, with bright colours and elaborate designs.
Meanwhile, the lack of electricity in most of the villages has left families relying on dangerous, polluting kerosene lamps. Not only is kerosene expensive, but a major fire risk, so lighting is limited. DFID has introduced simple and effective solar lamps in our emergency kits that are given out after disasters. These lights can be used for at least two years, and cost only the equivalent of two-months’ supply of kerosene. Children can now study in the evenings, and women and girls are safer when using the latrines, which have been designed by UNICEF to improve sanitation.
DFID’s approach is also based around the idea of community and family participation. This approach has resulted in our capacity to reach out and benefit disadvantaged people at a much bigger and wider scale. Individuals from communities are trained on how to rebuild their own homes, developing not just new skill sets but also pride in what they have achieved. Our partner organisations provide the training and cash to each household so that they can buy the materials and manage the construction themselves.
We also work so that we can help people affected by floods as quickly as possible. Working with other organisations in Pakistan, DFID has a comprehensive contingency plan, which means between us we have mapped the most vulnerable areas for flooding, prepositioning relevant emergency stock, and have a presence in all the districts across the country identified as high and very high risk. Together we have emergency stock for 9,000 families, and have the capacity to scale up rapidly.
As for Fatima and her family, she was relatively lucky. Her village was targeted for a humanitarian response by DFID. And the community itself selected Fatima as someone most in need for assistance. Along with 12 other families from the village of 52 households, she was trained in handling lime and in basic building techniques, and has almost completed her new home. One of her older daughters joined a livelihood scheme teaching local handicrafts for which markets had already been found, bringing some much needed cash into the family. Fatima was also involved in the design of the new kitchen garden under a programme with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which allowed the women to grow vegetables for their own consumption and which relied on run-off water from the village pump also funded by DFID. With most of the cows, chickens and goats washed away during the floods, DFID also supported an innovative design in Fatima’s village to build a raised earth platform just off the centre of the village. This area, half the size of a football field is three feet above the highest flood level, and once the rains start, families and animals can seek safety there until the waters recede. Where the earth had been dug to create the platform, a large trough was left, and this has now become a fish pond. The community who before rarely had the luxury of meat or fish, now have access to a great source of protein, with weddings and special events held on the platform too. DFID is only able to reach a fraction of those affected by disasters in Pakistan, but is hopeful that communities pass on these innovations to other communities nearby.
Floods along the plains of Pakistan have been a fact of life for thousands of years for people living alongside the Indus and its tributaries. Using flood-resistant building techniques and working with communities, like Fatima’s, shows something can be done to minimise the impact on families.