Alex Grey, Deputy Team Leader, Save the Children – Pakistan
Friday, January 28, 2011
Six months after the severe floods devastated the whole of Pakistan from the north to the south, an area greater that Great Britain, the crisis for Pakistan’s children is far from over. Cases of disease and malnutrition are increasing; millions are without adequate clothing and shelter during the freezing cold winter nights and in the worst-hit region, the southern province of Sindh, large areas still remain underwater. Many farmers will not be able to plant winter crops, meaning their livelihoods and access to food in the coming months and years is severely affected. Government officials say some of the worst-affected areas could take up to six months to dryout.
I recently arrived in Pakistan to take over as the deputy team leader for Save the Children’s flood emergency response. I decided to take the role after visiting in October, almost three months on from the floods, when I saw what a massive crisis this was (something that did not come across in the global media the same way that the Haiti earthquake crisis had earlier in the year). I had recently returned from Haiti, which was hit by the astonishingly devastating earthquake in January earlier that year, and I had not expected to land in Pakistan and see a disaster on the scale of which I did. After spending two weeks with the extremely hard working and dedicated team here in Pakistan who launched and were in the middle of a massive (and somewhat successful from Save the Children’s part) response, and after being confronted with such a massive crisis on the ground and seeing the dire need here in Pakistan, I knew I wanted to come back and work here.
Having just arrived into my new role, and having went into the field and spent two weeks in Punjab and in Sindh, the worst hit by the floods, I realize there is still a massive amount to do to restore the lives of the flood affected communities, and I worry that things will not improve in Pakistan for a very long time. I say this, because I have sat and chatted with children in our temporary learning centres and child friendly spaces (huge tents that we constructed to replace damaged schools where kids come together, learn and play in a safe environment) and heard from them how, that even when the school building was there before the floods, they had not attended school in two years because the government-paid teachers had not come to teach them. If this was the case before the floods, I fear what the future will look like for these children. That’s why Save the Children has ambitious aims.
During my first two weeks in the field, I spent a lot of time in flood affected communities with children and parents hearing their stories about what happened during the floods, in the immediate aftermath and listening to and observing their needs now, 6 months on. One of the most pressing and immediate needs that children and parents alike conveyed to me time and again was still shelter, warm clothing and blankets. It’s warm and sunny in the days, but bitterly cold in the evenings – I have experienced it myself but nothing compared to what the flood affected communities here have to endure. The majority of children (and parents) I spent time with have one set of clothes, thin as they were wearing them in the summer, and the rest of their belongings (clothes, blankets, furniture) were washed away in the floods, often along with their houses. Some are now living in tents, some are building back mud houses themselves, which will more than likely only be washed away in any future floods, some are building temporary shelters (with the help of Save the Children and other actors), but some are still living under tarpaulins without blankets and warm clothing. Save the Children has been providing shelter,blankets and winter clothing and is still distributing these life-saving relief items but it is still not enough despite the massive scale and number of beneficiaries we have reached.
Another major concern is with health and nutrition. I visited a stabilization centre run by Save the Children in Shikarpur in Sindh, where severely malnourished children were referred to by our mobile and static health and nutrition teams in the field. I met with four mothers and their severely malnourished children and was moved to tears to see a young boy almost 2-years-old who was so malnourished that he looked only 5-months-old. Another boy could not stop crying, but no sound was coming from him because he was so malnourished that he didn’t have the energy to make a sound. I could see the pain in his eyes and in his face, and then I spoke to the mothers of these poor children, who were largely malnourished themselves, and heard their stories and of the pain that they felt because they did not have the means provide food and nourishment for their own children.
I thought of what that must feel like for a parent, to not be able to provide for yourself and for your children, and the indignity of it. Again, I felt my eyes welling up. The positive thing about the experience is that all these children who I spent time with were going to live because of the intervention of Save the Children and our wonderful staff who go out to the communities and mobilize them and work hand-in-hand to identify and address their immediate needs. In addition, the mothers’ details were taken and our livelihoods program will ensure that they will receive a cash grant which will hopefully see that their family do not go short of food and survive until the worst of this crisis is over. That day spent in the hospital with the malnourished children, their mothers and our dedicated staff of doctors made me realize how important it is for the government, donors and international community to keep responding as we move into the“recovery phase”, and we are all working hard and hoping that we can continue to build back better these communities in the months and years ahead.
As we look forward at our recovery strategy I am asking myself what we can do to improve the lives of children in Pakistan in the future. It’s what everyone is talking about 6 months on from the floods. However my first impressions and observations after spending two weeks in the field is that it’s hard, even impossible, especially for the flood affected communities in Pakistan, to think about or focus on the future when there is still so many basic immediate needs that have yet to be met.
We have had a great response so far and I am so proud of the 2,000 amazing and dedicated staff here working 7 days a week who have been distributing relief items, providing shelter and protection and safe spaces for children ensuring their health needs are met and that their education continues.The work here is far from done and it will take a very long time for Pakistan to recover, but when I visit a hospital and speak to a mother whose young boy’s life has been saved due to our good work, I am inspired, thankful and hopeful for the future of the children whose lives were (and are) at risk after the floods six months ago.