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Commentary Post - Michelle Neukirchen

A first-hand account of the flood devastation in Pakistan

September 23, 2010

Dean Carolyn Woo serves on the board of Catholic Relief Services and has visited a number of countries where the service organization is working to overcome poverty, water shortages and a wide range of other challenges. Following is an account of a recent visit to Pakistan by Michelle Neukirchen, Catholic Relief Services' regional technical advisor for water, sanitation and hygiene in Asia, who is based in Afghanistan Guest Commentary from Catholic Relief Services.

Since July, torrential rains in Pakistan have caused flooding that washed out roads, homes and tracts of land, leaving millions destitute. More than 17 million people have been affected by the floodwaters, and more than 4.5 million are homeless. Neukirchen worked for CRS Pakistan from 2005 to 2008, helping with the earthquake recovery efforts there, and returned recently to assist with relief efforts after the devastating floods began. Michelle just returned from the CRS office in Besham, Pakistan, where CRS has worked continuously since the 2005 earthquake. The purpose of her visit was to support the CRS response team as they plan further flood response efforts, especially in the areas of water, infrastructure and hygiene.

Following are excerpts from a conversation with her on August 24.
The floods in northern Pakistan were sudden and violent. People had very little time to move to higher ground, and the water cut 100-foot-wide and 40-foot-high gashes out of mountainsides. Water delivery systems, roads, bridges — everything was destroyed by the sudden force of the water. People's land has just vanished. It's not a matter of waiting for waters to recede; their land is gone for good. Shelter solutions in the north have to be put in place right away. Winter comes earlier in the north, so aid agencies will need to coordinate with the government to ensure needs for winterized shelters are met before the cold sets in.

One thing that really stands out is the great difficulty of people moving from one location to another. In one area, the entire length of road connecting villages to the local market was washed away. Hiking from the market to the village – a distance of less than two miles – can take over two hours, with having to climb over boulders and scramble over loose rocks all along the way.

One of the immediate priorities is for the roads to be rebuilt in the north as quickly and safely as possible. People had to travel long distances for food and medical care before the floods; now those journeys are more difficult, and may be impossible for someone who is very ill. Some people depend on getting to markets to make a living, so the limited access has become an income issue as well.

CRS is beginning to lay out pathways and build culverts to improve market access, as well as constructing retaining walls to limit landslides. Engineering teams are also repairing water supply systems to restore safe water access close to homes. We also are teaching people about proper hygiene, water purification and water storage, which is essential to prevent disease. This involves distributing water purification tablets and also talking to people about boiling water if tablets run out.

Some families are taking shelter in local schools or staying with relatives. A few even had leftover materials from the 2005 earthquake, such as tents and tarps, and they were able to grab them before the floodwaters rose.

When you look at the whole country, the response takes on many complexities. The issues in Besham are completely different than in the south where there is standing water. In the north, there is widespread, permanent damage to land. In the south, entire communities are displaced. The situations are very different. It's challenging to CRS and other agencies to be flexible to reflect the unique needs in both settings.

CRS is well-positioned to respond in both the north and the south. In the north, the communities' needs will be somewhat similar to what we saw in the 2005 earthquake. We already have established expert teams positioned to engineer solutions well-suited to rugged terrain. In the south, the flood patterns and people's needs are similar to what we have seen in Pakistan's 2007 floods, as well as annual flooding in India and Bangladesh. We can draw on CRS' national and regional experience and expertise to respond appropriately in Pakistan's southern lowlands.