Debt, disease and hunger follow floods in Pakistan

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  • Aletta Andre

    Correspondent India

  • Aletta Andre

    Correspondent India

Ramesh Kumar and his pregnant wife are two of the hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis who have lost everything to the floods in recent months. Their house, made of wood and thatch, has collapsed. Their cotton crop near Nawabshah nearby is largely lost. “I asked the landowner to cancel our debt, but he refused. He said you have to pay me back,” said Ramesh.

He does not receive a salary, but gets a share of the profit that the landowner earns from the harvest. When there is no profit, as there is now, but loss, Ramesh must pay half of the costs incurred. This is very common in rural Sindh, Pakistan’s worst-hit province.

For example, countless farm workers are deeply in debt, says activist Akram Khaskheli. “And the only way they can pay the landowners back is by working. It’s a form of forced labor that we’re seeing increased again because of the flooding.”

Poor people have already had a hard time in Pakistan due to the pandemic and an ongoing economic crisis that has made food more and more expensive. “The floods are likely to exacerbate food insecurity and malnutrition for millions of Pakistanis,” the World Food Organization warned this week.

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Ramesh Kumar and his brother pick cotton in a flooded field

So says Parveen Eijaz, a doctor who supervises pregnant women in a relief camp of more than 4,000 people in the city of Hyderabad. “There are 88 pregnant women in this camp alone,” she says. “We give them food supplements and advise them to eat healthy. But as soon as the water recedes a bit, they go back to their village and there are all kinds of risks. People don’t have access to clean drinking water and there is still a lot of standing water in the fields, which means there are a lot of mosquitoes.”

Not all homeless people are in organized camps with medical care. Across Sindh, people sit in tents by the side of the road, meters away from stagnant water, in temperatures of up to 40 degrees. In the province alone, 134,000 cases of diarrhea and 44,000 cases of malaria were reported this week. Hundreds of people are hospitalized with dengue every day in the regional capital Karachi. More than 300 people in the province died from diseases related to the floods, in addition to the more than 1,500 killed in the flood.

House of mud

In the camp, Fazal, his pregnant wife Suraiya and their one-and-a-half-year-old son sleep in a room in a new school building that was not yet in use. 5000 schools are being used as emergency shelters across Pakistan. Almost 24,000 schools have also become unusable due to water damage. Many children miss out on education because of this.

Fazal and his family do not have a mosquito net to protect themselves from malaria and dengue fever. He also doesn’t know how to follow Dr. Eijaz’s advice. “It gives me a headache, I keep thinking: we don’t have money for this child coming into the world,” he says. “How can I feed them?” He grabs his son’s thin arm. “He was fat before, but now his health is very bad.”

The family had a house made of mud, which probably no longer stands. Fazal has no money for the bus to go and see. “The water rose to our necks and holes formed in the roof. Then we escaped with only the clothes we were wearing. Our goat drowned.”

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The pregnant Suraiya, Fazal and their son in a relief camp

“The biggest problem in the coming months will be malnutrition,” says Dr. Ejiaz. “And if pregnant women and mothers don’t eat well, they won’t have enough milk for their babies either. I’m worried that all the aid coming into the country won’t reach the very poorest in remote villages.”

Activist Akram is also concerned about malnutrition. He points to the water in the cotton field that farm laborer Ramesh Kumar is working on. “Normally, wheat is sown from October 15. But if the water is not gone yet, then it is not possible. And then there will be no wheat harvest next year. While most people here cannot survive without wheat.”

For now, there is plenty of storage in the granaries of Pakistan. But it is not clear what will happen if the harvest is significantly smaller next year. And while the water is running out in many parts of the country, it could be months before it completely disappears in Sindh, an important grain-producing province.

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