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Reports from Pakistan

Reports from Pakistan

CWS staffer Nick Clarke's stories filed while on secondment in Pakistan.
 

Update 6: 6/10/2010

So why is it that just about every agency involved in humanitarian relief work does all it can to discourage concerned members of the public from donating unsolicited goods (food, clothes, whatever) out of the goodness of their hearts when responding to emergencies?   Perhaps this story which unfolded during my time in Pakistan might help to provide an answer:

A Pakistan government agency contacted CWS-P/A regarding two, 40 foot shipping containers which had arrived at the Port of Karachi with food aid for flood affected families in Pakistan.  Having in a previous work life been a regular importer of goods in ‘forty footers’, I know how much you can pack into these things – and it’s a lot!

This is not the first time in its history that CWS-P/A has been approached in this way – and it most certainly won’t be the last.  However, previous experience has taught that it is best to exercise caution when dealing with this form of aid.  Question from the government agency: Would CWS-P/A distribute the enclosed food packages to needy communities on their behalf?  Answer: Possibly – depending on what is inside them.  However trying to ascertain what compassionate members of the public from EU countries had contributed proved to be a problem, and shipping manifests were proving difficult to locate.  Negotiations were continuing – or so it seemed.

Sunday morning and I’m out with Allan, Director of CWS-P/A’s Disaster Management Programme, when he receives a phone call from an agent wanting to know when the organisation will collect the two containers.  What to do?  It’s Sunday, most places are closed and Allan’s staff are taking a break with their families – much needed after the first rush of the emergency response.  That notwithstanding, something has to be done and quickly; check the contents at the port? (not practical), reject the containers? transport the containers to an already overfull warehouse (providing one can make contact with the appropriate staff person and arrange transport)? See if we can get them on the road straight up to needy communities in Swat.  The latter option is taken.  Next day we hear that the containers have arrived at our Swat office – ready for unloading and distributing to families recovering from the floods.

A good solution?  Potentially – until the team opened the containers.  Included in the items was UHT milk - ok I guess but it’s a long way to send it from the UK or Scandinavia when one can buy it on the local market in Pakistan at a much cheaper price to boot.  The consignment of butter on the other hand – in unrefrigerated containers, shipped from northern countries (with it must be said the best will in the world), transported by road from the south of Pakistan to the north in daytime temperatures well into the mid-thirties.  Things were not smelling good...

Yes, you can fit a lot into two forty foot shipping containers – problematic when two-thirds of the items within were past their expiry dates.

So, what to do?

Well, at least packages can be made up from the remaining one-third of the food items.  At least families without will receive something.  Problem is, the team can’t give these to families who have received nothing to date.  Why?  CWS-P/A’s packages are designed in response to local dietary needs and expectations (wheat flour, rice, cooking oil, pulses, sugar, salt, tea), to comply with internationally recognised SPHERE Standards, and to last families with an average size of 8 for one month.  These food packages weigh in at just under 140 kilograms.  If the organisation was then to turn around and give needy communities who had previously received nothing smaller packages containing a mix of unrequested items, what are those same families going to think of their neighbours who received the larger and more appropriate CWS-P/A packages?  The haves and the have nots...  How are those same communities going to view CWS-P/A itself?  An aid organisation that, like every other, is often referred to as infidels by a handful of very conservative and misinformed mullahs – with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Course of action?  Use the food items to make up packages for families to supplement that which they have already received by CWS-P/A.

Problem solved?  No, problem dealt with.

And remember, all of this happens, has to happen, when staff are frenetically busy doing all they can to assist with flood affected families.  But their hands are tied; they have to deal with the containers – and in the case of this story, live with the stench emanating from the warehouse below where they (eventually) sleep each night.

Is this a one-off, isolated incident of well intentioned aid gone wrong?  Would that it was, but then I recall similar stories in response to the Samoan tsunami last year – and in countless other humanitarian crises all over the world.

We are so very grateful for the care and compassion of people all around the world to this most recent and simply enormous crisis in Pakistan – but please, unless you personally know who goods are going to, who will pay the import fees, collect the goods and arrange distribution – give cash.

 

 

Update 5: 4/10/2010

Swat is a stunning area and often referred to as the Geneva of Pakistan.  Until the 1960’s Swat was a princely state with highly regarded education and health systems, and a growing magnet for tourists. Today the beauty remains but a lack of investment and support from the government, along with the destruction caused by the Taliban has severely and negatively impacted on the provision of health and education services.

This reality is striking as we spend time in the mountain village of Kishawa, about an hour’s drive away from CWS-P/A’s Mingora office.  Community members point out to me in the distance Pakistan’s only ski-field - now destroyed.  Kishawa and many communities like it throughout Swat had been occupied by the Taliban until last year’s offensive by the Pakistan military, which in and of itself resulted in the internal displacement of around 3 million people as the war raged. 
Only the foundations of the original government run Basic Health Unit are visible as we arrive at a new facility provided and staffed by CWS-P/A.  The organisation will run the facility in tandem with a government health worker - a doctor who will in time take over the operation. This Basic Health Unit and many others like it have been provided by CWS-P/A as part of its response to conflict affected communities and was inaugurated on July 28th – the very day the rains and subsequent flooding commenced.  Serving all people living in a 25 kilometre radius, its catchment is huge and its presence sorely needed.  On the day of our visit the clinic was in full swing; women were waiting to be seen and we met with members of the medical team, doctors, lady health workers, etc.
Why isn’t the Pakistan Government running these Basic Health Units? In theory they should be – this one and a great many others around the country.  The reality is however that they were seriously underfunded, often ignored with staff often not monitored.  The result? Run down, inadequately stocked health units with staff who may or may not turn up to work.  In the case of Swat and other areas in the North this is compounded by the fact that many of these units are located in very isolated and conservative Muslim communities where only the most dedicated of health workers would choose to live.  Into this scene advanced the Taliban in 2008 who occupied the area for around 12 months.

The Nazzim (local mayor) tells of how their community was the only one to stand up to the Taliban when they occupied the area around Kishawa, how 20 of their men-folk were kidnapped and a ransom of 200,000 rupees (around NZ$3,000) demanded for their release – a fortune for poor rural communities such as this.  The cash was somehow found, the men released and the community of Kishawa taught a lesson; the wholesale destruction of the only Basic Health Unit to serve communities in a 25 kilometre radius, and the total destruction of Kishawa Girls Secondary School located just over the road.

The floods in July added yet another layer of complication in the lives of those who live in Kishawa.  The area around Kishawa is stunning for sure but makes life challenging for the communities who live there.  The area is steep and accessed by a narrow and winding road.  Farmers we spoke to tell of having their homes on the mountainside and their plots of land (around ½ acre) on the fertile land beside the river down on the valley floor.   Around their homes on the mountainside of course flooding was not the problem.  The rains however did cause some homes to collapse.  One home we visited housed an extended family – the final number of occupants I couldn’t quite ascertain, but at least sixteen – was being rebuilt with members of the community pitching into help.  On the valley floor, the floods washed many crops away – the result being a shortage of food and income for many homes and it is for this reason that CWS-P/A has been providing food and, for those who need them, basic health and household items.

Sitting with the Nazzim and other men from Kishawa I hear encouraging stories about the quality of the food packages given by CWS-P/A to households following the floods.  That and pleas for more assistance, not only for the most vulnerable flood-affected households but for everyone as all have been impacted by the Taliban – all are struggling.

As the area moves into early recovery, CWS-P/A continues to accompany the community of Kishawa and others like it throughout the Swat Valley.  Livelihoods are the next priority; cash for work schemes providing income to families while clearing up infrastructure, voucher schemes for agricultural inputs – seeds, tools and such in order to get crops planted by mid-November, cash grants for those who lost their roadside shops and stalls, enabling them to restock and earn an income – all measures designed to address the livelihood and food needs of the affected communities.

In Kishawa and many other communities throughout Swat, there are positive signs of hope.  That said our visit and discussions with community members highlights the considerable challenges associated with responding in this area.  Friend and colleague Marvin reminds me of a sobering fact; CWS-P/A is helping 10,000 families – out of 21 million people affected by these floods.  In the midst of hope, there is still great need.

Update 4: 1/10/2010

Friday was an early start.  Picked up at 5:30am to join a small group from the office and head off into Swat to visit a basic health unit, meet with community members and spend time with staff at CWS-P/A’s field office. The journey to the office takes about 4 hours from Islamabad – the first stretch of which is on 3 lane highway before the roads get narrower as we head north.

We pass through Dargai, a town in full swing as people head off to work or the market and complete their business before attending the local Mosque for Friday prayers.  It was the area beyond Dargai and into Swat where the Taleban held control until the Pakistan military offensive cleared the area in March last year.  There is still a strong military presence in the area with more checkpoints than usual – screening vehicles with bomb detectors.  The checkpoints increase in number the further north we head, with many command posts and soldiers with weapons protected in sandbagged bunkers - one with an impressive collection of ornamental plants lined up outside it!

Shortly beyond Dargai, we climb steeply over a long and meandering mountain pass and down into the Swat valley Evidence of destruction begins to become apparent; flood damage immediately alongside the river, washed out houses and fields – also buildings strafed or demolished in the conflict between the military and Taleban.  Passing through towns and villages you see the roll-down doors of community storefronts almost all of which had the Pakistani flag painted on them – apparently by the military as they advanced further up the valley. It's an area that has been hit hard twice in recent times – the flooding striking as communities were re-establishing themselves after the conflict.  Now the focus is on early recovery and the repair of infrastructure – 25 of Swat’s 28 bridges were damaged or destroyed in the floods.  CWS-P/A is doing some great work in assisting flood  and conflict affected communities in Swat  – about which I’ll share more next time.

 

Update 3: 30/9/2010

Much of the daily routine is based around a computer trying to develop funding proposals for emergency response and early recovery programmes, which can require meeting with donors – yesterday someone from Europe, the day before Australia.  Tuesday’s meeting took place at the Serena Hotel where the majority of UN Cluster meetings are held, a lavish place – and one which serves a fantastic ice cold lime lemonade!  Getting into the grounds is something of a challenge however – checkpoint one – a guard checks under the bonnet.  Drive on and come to checkpoint two - a barrier in front of large metal gates and more guards.  No mirrors to check underneath this time so can only assume that the underside of the vehicle is being monitored by cameras.  We disembark and the vehicle parks while we pass through a separate doorway with screening for ourselves and our bags much as you would get at airports.   Then we’re in!

Today we are a little more cautious about security in Islamabad.  The cultural editor of the Danish newspaper which published a cartoon of the Muslim prophet Mohammed in 2005 is today releasing a book, The Tyranny of Silence.  This combined with an expected ruling from the Allahabad High Court on a 60 year old case involving a disputed site between Hindus and Moslems in the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh creates the possibility of protests and reprisals.

Early start tomorrow at 5am as 4 of us head up to Swat to view flood response activities and meet with affected communities.  Swat is an area that has been affected by the 2005 earthquake, large scale internal displacement caused by (the continuing) militia insurgency - and now of course the flood in which hundreds have died, many more were displaced and which wrecked havoc on livelihoods and infrastructure. Travel within Pakistan generally requires obtaining a No Objection Certificate (NOC) issued by the Pakistani Ministry of the Interior – however as we will be gone less than 24 hours it’s not required.  It will be good to meet with communities and understand a little more about the challenges they are facing as they seek to rebuild their lives.

 

Update 2: 27/9/2010

Another week has past in Islamabad - one that was spent in the same relatively mundane fashion as when I am back home - working at theoffice.  The majority of my time has been spent writing project proposals to try and access humanitarian aid funding from a variety of sources - in my case ACT Alliance members, governments and the UNDP.  This is a very necessary task - in part due to the scale of this emergency requiring such a large response, and also because accessing funding for this emergency is quite difficult.

On Wednesday evening I went out with a member of CWS-P/A's staff team for dinner in Islamabad's Green Zone - a protected enclave in the city which is home to various embassies, some private housing, and a few (most probably international) offices - all in all adding up to quite a sizable area with lots of streets etc.  When I say protected, the whole place is surrounded by a very high wall capped off in rolls of razor wire.  The entrance is a narrow walled 'shute' where we are stopped, ID's and passports shown and the vehicle outside and checked underneath with mirrors.  It's a little like entering a walled city and is slightly surreal!

On the one hand the security situation in Islamabad seems quite benign, however last week there were protests in parts of Islamabad so we were advised to keep clear. In the last 24-48 hours, 30 militia were killed in a strike near the Afghan/Pakistan border in the Northwest.  You never really know what repercussions these sorts of events might generate. Checkpoints are a daily presence in Islamabad but numbers have been reduced since last year.  CWS-P/A's security officer keeps a close eye on the situation and lets us know what we can and can't do.  Although the office is essentially just around the corner, I am unable to walk to work due to safety concerns.  In theory drivers are supposed to rotate and use different routes to get us to and from work - a bit of a challenge as the office is not that far away!  All in all it's a bit different from my daily commute on my bike!

The situation in the south remains serious with some areas expecting to be under water for up to another three months.  Risk of disease is very high. Throughout all affected areas getting crops sown is becoming a pressing concern.  If this isn't achieved by early November, people will miss out until they can plant again in March.

This issue alone has the potential to create another emergency - this time in the form of famine.  Food security in Pakistan was tenuous prior to the floods - now the threat is far more serious.

Hoping to get up into the northwest later in the week to visit affected communities and see aspects of CWS-P/A's response.

Because of the response of CWS NZ and a good many other agencies in the ACT family, people have been receiving food to sustain them following the floods.  Other aspects of CWS-P/A's response include providing households with basic household kits (kitchen utensils, mosquito nets, hygiene kits, etc), mobile health units to assist communities with no medical facilities or whose facilities have been washed away.  There are a good many other things going on besides all this, along with some great initiatives to assist affected communities as they begin the long process of recovery.

 

Nick’s Pakistan Update 1: 20/9/2010

The challenges facing Pakistan are huge. The scale of the problem is enormous – flood waters covering the equivalent land area of the whole of New Zealand and affecting 21 million people - over five times our population. And still new areas of land are being flooded...

Today Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN made the comment that the size of this event would be overwhelming for a developed country let alone one facing the challenges experienced by Pakistan. Parts of the country continue to be experiencing the full force of the emergency, while in other parts the recovery phase has begun as families return to their home communities and seek to re-establish themselves. The grain producing heartland has been seriously affected which has huge implications for a country seeking to feed itself. Damage to pastoral areas means that livestock which survived the flooding urgently need fodder of they are to survive.

Those seeking to assist communities in the mountainous North have to deal with terrain that was challenging enough to navigate before the flooding yet alone after the destruction. Communities displaced by last year’s insurgency have this year been impacted by the flooding while still having to deal with insecurity - an issue also affecting other parts of the country. Risk of disease remains high and is anticipated to be a particular problem in the south of the country. The complexities are substantial but people need help now.

Walking into CWS-P/A’s head office in Islamabad on Wednesday morning was a heartening experience. This is an organisation that clearly knows what it is doing. Some great programmes are underway ranging from emergency food distribution to mobile and static health clinics – the latter filling a gap that existed before the flooding. The team are very professional but are also fun to be with – a necessity given the challenges that this organisation responds to and also the issues around security that impacts upon daily life even in Islamabad. We are a truly multicultural bunch – mostly Pakistani staff along with some from the Philippines, US, Malaysia. In addition to the staff team and having picked up the baton from Ben, a colleague from a partner organisation in Australia, I find myself working alongside a couple of people from Finland and Britain – both seconded from partner organisations of CWS-P/A and members of the ACT (Action by Churches Together) family. This short term secondment of staff is clearly adding value to the response work of CWS-P/A. It’s also a great example of Action by Churches Together.

At this stage the main focus of my work is assisting the team to complete funding proposals – I feel a dose of report writing coming my way!

Thank you to those of you who have been supporting Christian World Service in our response to this emergency – your help is very necessary. Looking forward to sharing more in the coming days

Nick