Journey inside Pakistan’s flood zone reveals how poorest were hit hardest

Residents wait as aid material is loaded into boats in Dadu, Sindh, Pakistan on Sept. 13. (Saiyna Bashir for The Washington Post)
10 min

SUKKUR, Pakistan — By the time Pakistan’s government recognized the severity of the unprecedented floods that struck the country this summer and sounded an alert, it was already too late for millions of families to flee the onrushing waters. And nearly all were among the country’s most vulnerable, trapped by poverty and neglect, their lives and livelihoods already a daily struggle.

Deep inside Pakistan’s disaster zone, the country’s worst floods in recorded history have underscored how the poor, both here and abroad, are often disproportionately exposed to the ravages of climate change.

When the heavy monsoon rains entered their second week in July with no sign of relenting, Amina Gadehi knew the floods would be different this year. She and a group of other villagers approached the village’s elected leader, asking that they be allowed to temporarily camp on a plot of higher ground that he owned.

“He told us: ‘I’m not responsible for you. Find your own shelter,’ ” Gadehi recalled, clenching her jaw in anger.

She and dozens of others in her village had no savings to pay for travel or to temporarily rent another place. They stayed in their homes, hoping the rains would relent. But as the water began to lap over their windowsills, Gadehi and her family decided this was their last chance to escape. For nearly an hour, Gadehi recounted, she and her husband, their five children, and the few cows and buffaloes they managed to save waded through waist-high water to a relative’s house in another village on slightly higher land.

Now they are stuck there, surrounded by water. The only boats that can rescue them aren’t large enough for their livestock — too precious to be left behind.

Thousands of families like Gadehi’s have been stranded in villages that turned into islands. The floods have killed about 1,500 people, according to the Pakistani government, and displaced tens of thousands.

Long before the government declared a national emergency in August, people here in Sindh province were begging local officials to act — to help relocate families and livestock and to reinforce levees to divert water — according to dozens who survived the floods.

But they said, in many cases, they were left to fend for themselves until it was too late.

Warnings weren’t enough

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister, said a national emergency wasn’t declared sooner because officials didn’t know the downpour would continue for so long. “I don’t think any administration or government could have been prepared for a biblical flood like this,” she said in an interview. “There was no modeling for what we saw.”

She said officials in her ministry and other government agencies began to fear unusually severe flooding as early as June, but she added that it wasn’t until August that they realized the magnitude of the crisis. “The meteorological department began telling me, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this,’ ” she said. “I started getting calls late at night. Everyone was saying, ‘We are just in shock.’ ”

Ahsan Iqbal, who heads Pakistan’s national flood response center, said the government could not have been better prepared or acted faster to respond to the crisis once it began to unfold. “The scale of the calamity is so huge, it’s just beyond the administrative and financial resources of a country like Pakistan,” said Iqbal, who is also Pakistan’s planning minister. “There is no way we could have mitigated this level of damage.”

Iqbal said he believes that a series of early evacuation warnings saved thousands of lives. “The death toll could have been at least three to four times more if not for the early weather-warning system,” he said.

But for millions, the warnings alone were insufficient.

Subhan Ali Buriro recalled when warnings began to sound in his village. Those residents with means quickly relocated to the provincial capital, Karachi, and other urban areas. But without any savings, Buriro could only afford to move his wife and four children to a nearby relative’s house. “We had nowhere else to go,” he said.

He believed that the concrete house would withstand the rains and rapidly rising waters. But within days, the roof collapsed, burying his children under chunks of cement and other debris. “It was dark, and I couldn’t hear anything over the rain,” he said. “I just began to dig.”

Tens of thousands refuse to flee submerged Pakistani villages

After an hour, he and some neighbors recovered the children and rushed them to a hospital, but the only doctor present was unable to save them. “I saw them take their last breaths,” Buriro said. “It felt like the entire sky had fallen on me.”

Buriro and the neighbors drained part of a nearby graveyard, digging for hours to create shallow burial plots in the waterlogged earth.

“If I had more resources, of course we would have moved right away to a safer place,” Buriro said. “If we weren’t poor, my children would still be alive.”

Allegations of empty promises

The worst-hit parts of Pakistan are also some of its poorest. Rural Sindh province has some of the lowest literacy rates in the country, severely limited access to health care, and minimal infrastructure.

Political power in the province has been dominated for generations by its largest landowners. In many areas, the landowners are not only the main sources of employment but also the elected leaders.

“We can’t oppose our leaders because we are dependent on them for everything,” Gadehi said. “They visit us during elections and make promises, but we get nothing in return.”

Sindh’s chief minister, Syed Murad Ali Shah, dismissed complaints from those affected by the floods as “innuendos and petty, politically-charged narratives.”

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In a written statement, he said the “government of Sindh is solely focused on providing rescue and relief to the people of Sindh without any prejudice.” He blamed “factions with malicious intent” for spreading “misinformation.”

But he said that when a “legitimate complaint is received,” officials face “strict actions,” and “a number” of irrigation, health and other government officials have been suspended.

The deprivation that left many Pakistanis especially vulnerable to the flooding continues to plague them in its aftermath. At Dadu’s overwhelmed central hospital, the wards are overflowing, and patients desperate for medical attention crowd the hallways. Doctors who struggled to provide health care even before the floods now turn away hundreds of people each day because of inadequate space.

“The children we are seeing now were already sick before they were displaced,” said Faram Gohar Lashari, a pediatrician at Dadu central hospital. “Now, this suffering will only increase.” He spoke in a clipped fashion as he attended to the stream of sick children brought into his office. Malaria and other waterborne diseases are spiking, as are skin and chest infections from poor sanitation at makeshift displacement camps.

“Nearly all these children are malnourished, and that makes them more vulnerable to other illnesses,” Lashari said. He predicted that those who die of disease and infection in the weeks ahead will overtake the number killed by the floodwaters.

In one hallway, a woman lay on a bench drifting in and out of consciousness, in need of emergency care. Doctors said they couldn’t help her. They were too busy dealing with dozens of other patients.

Doctors and nurses at the hospital said they have repeatedly asked for more supplies and staff from provincial authorities, but have yet to receive any. Shah, the chief minister in Sindh, denied claims that health-care workers are not getting the support they need.

Growing desperation

At a camp outside Dadu city, Saima Lund said she struggled to keep her children healthy even before the floods. Her husband, a day laborer, could barely afford to feed his family. All five of her children suffered from malnutrition as infants. Only three have survived.

Lund’s youngest, Shifa, was born just as the monsoon rains began to batter their village. By the time her family fled their home, the waters had washed away all the grain they had stockpiled for the year. At the camp, Shifa’s health began to quickly deteriorate. “All I have to feed my family is one bag of cooked rice a day,” Lund said, referring to government handouts.

When Shifa began to run a high fever and refused to eat, Lund walked with her nearly an hour to the closest hospital but was turned away. Doctors had run out of supplies, she said.

“I fear I’m going to lose my daughter,” Lund said, fanning the child to try to keep her temperature down. “We lacked health care in my village, and now the hospitals in town have nothing.”

Many parts of Sindh are expected to remain underwater for months to come, and desperation is growing among the hundreds of thousands who have been displaced.

‘No one is caring for us’: Pakistanis struggle for survival after floods

During a recent boat delivery of emergency food supplies to a village outside the city of Khairpur Nathan Shah, a handful of people gathered at the water’s edge. Within minutes, a few patiently waiting families turned into an angry throng.

Humanitarian workers with Global Empowerment Mission — one of the few international groups operating deep inside the flood zone — tried to pull up close enough to hand over bags of rice, cooking oil, sugar and tea, but the scene grew violent. Men, women and children jostled for the goods. Some fell into the swampy muck. Police escorts tried to calm the crowd, but it had grown too big and pushed the police back.

Emily Fullmer, who leads aid distribution for the group, said the reaction was not a surprise. While making deliveries in different areas, her group had been repeatedly told that it was the first to show up. No government officials or other aid groups had preceded them.

“Like any human being on the planet, when you haven’t seen food or water or medical attention for weeks, things become very desperate, very quickly,” Fullmer said.

And levels of desperation rise faster in places that were suffering from high poverty rates before being hit by a natural disaster, she continued.

“Communities that are already struggling are the ones that get hit the hardest with climate disasters,” Fullmer said. “It’s unfair and unfortunate, but we really see it all around the world.”

Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.