(Photo: NB77 / Flickr)
Peshawar - "We swam the whole day to get hold of the elderly and women swept away by floodwaters," recalled 27-year-old Shahid Ali of Charsadda district, one of the areas in north-western Pakistan badly hit by devastating monsoon rains.
"We – five local swimmers – saved eighteen persons, including eight women and six children," he said, relating just one of many stories of how communities are desperately trying to cope with one of Pakistan’s worst natural disasters in recent memory.
While flooding is common in Pakistan during the monsoon season, the volume of rainfall has hit up to 300 millimetres in some areas, including in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where Charsadda district is located. This was the highest amount of rainfall recorded in 35 years, local media said, most of it in occurring between Jul. 26 and Aug. 2.
Rainfall during the monsoon across the country has reached 160 mm, up from the usual average of 137 mm in a monsoon season, weather officials say.
And the rains are far from gone. North-western Pakistan has been hardest hit, but the rains have also bloated rivers and sent water levels rising toward the south, reaching Punjab, the most populous province of this South Asian country.
"We have suffered huge losses. Where will we go even if the flood stops? Our homes and other belongings, such as standing crops and cattle, have been washed away," rued 58- year-old Rahima Bibi from Nowshera district. Three of her grandchildren are missing, she adds.
Teacher Javid Khan, from Charsadda, says he has not seen his younger brother in three days. Incessant rains have submerged huge areas, swept away homes and bridges, destroyed agricultural produce and irrigation systems. This left a disaster situation that is now raising worries about lack of drinking water and the spread of water-borne illnesses.
The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been trying to get assistance from the international community, but in the meantime locals have been taking in those affected by the calamity.
Losses are estimated at more than two billion U.S. dollars as the rains and floods have killed more than 1,500 persons and left more than three million homeless, says Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain. The figure is expected to go higher, and officials are having problems getting updated figures.
"We appeal to the international community to help us in these crying times. Only the United States has pledged 10 million dollars while the other countries, including the Islamic states, are silent," he told IPS.
Schools in Peshawar, Mardan, Charsadda and Nowshera have been hosting displaced families.
Meantime, health and disaster experts fear the environment is ripe for the breakout of diseases, especially acute diarrhoea, given unsanitary and congested living conditions in places without adequate facilities.
"We have already established a makeshift hospital in the government Polytechnic Institute Nowshera, because the district headquarters hospital there has completely been submerged," Syed Jaffar Hussain, regional advisor for health promotion for the World Health Organisation (WHO) Eastern Mediterranean office in Cairo, said in an interview.
Already, more than 4,000 people out of some 15,000 that sought medical consultation are suffering from acute watery diarrhoea, local director-general for health Sajid Shaheen said. This "can snowball into an epidemic if preventive measures aren’t put in place immediately", he said.
WHO operations officer Saeed Akbar Khan adds that 1.2 million water- purifying pills have been sent to affected districts.
Snake and scorpion bites are also major concerns, but full-fledged health care services can be done after rainwater recedes further, Shaheen says.
Some districts like Shangla and Swat were inaccessible Tuesday due to bad weather and a shortage of helicopters and boats made rescue and delivery of supplies difficult, officials say.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti says thousands of residents were trapped in the inaccessible valleys of Malakand division, though some 1,100 had been rescued from other locations by boats and helicopters.
"The government’s top priority is to evacuate stranded people and distribute food among the displaced families," Hoti said in the provincial capital Peshawar.
Hussain says it is time to look ahead and anticipate other needs in an emergency like this. "We are immediately swinging into action to provide people with psychological support because they suffered huge losses, due to which they are vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder," he explained.
But for now, some are finding it hard to look beyond the damage and losses amid them.
"We are facing the worst-ever natural disaster in our history that has pushed the province almost 50 years back," Hoti said.
"Where are the NGOs, the government and U.N. agencies? People are crying for food, shelter and medication," said Juma Raz, a farmer from Charsadda. "My home and orchards were washed away. We have to start our life from zero now. Everything is lost," he mumbled tearfully.
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