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A crisis unlike any other

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A person points towards their flooded home from a hilltop overlooking Nowshera, located in Pakistan's northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province.
A person points towards their flooded home from a hilltop overlooking Nowshera, located in Pakistan's northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province.

In this excerpt, Rebecca Barber, Oxfam’s humanitarian policy and advocacy advisor in Pakistan, reflects on the human scope of this month’s catastrophic floods. Learn more about what Oxfam is doing in Pakistan, or go here to donate to Oxfam’s flood relief and recovery efforts.

First, we heard that the recent floods in Pakistan were the worst in a generation. Then it was the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. Then—the one we hear time and again–the number of people affected was more than the Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the Haiti earthquake put together. The Pakistani Prime Minister told us that the floods were “worse than partition.” The BBC told us that the floods would cover a third of England. … All with a view to getting people around the world somehow to picture the immensity of what’s happening to Pakistan.  

But while such comparisons can help to convey the scale of the crisis, what they don’t and can’t convey is the suffering that every one of the millions of people affected—or at least the eight million whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed–are going through.

In a camp in Khairpur, in Sindh, a man told me that he had paid 20,000 rupees (about $230) to evacuate himself and his family from his village when the flood warning came. To cover the costs, he sold the household’s entire crop of wheat. Between himself, his father and his uncle, the family had owned 13 buffalo.  But they couldn’t afford to bring them with them when they evacuated, and all drowned when the floodwaters washed through the village. Three of his brothers have stayed behind, camping out on some nearby high land to keep an eye on what’s left of their homes. The village is beneath five feet of water, and he says he thinks it will be two years before they’ll be able to cultivate again. 

In another camp, a man told me that his family had left behind eight goats, two cows and two buffalo when the army evacuated them. He and his family were tenant farmers, living on and cultivating the landlord’s land. In addition to the goats, cows, and buffalo, they’d owned a small vegetable plot. They’d subsisted day to day on the small profits from the livestock, the vegetables they grew themselves, and a small portion of the landlord’s crops. But the work won’t start again until January next year, when the time for harvesting sugarcane comes around.

Until then, he said, he’ll go to one of the cities and look for work. He won’t get more than 100 rupees (about $1.15) a day though, nothing like enough to feed a family of ten. And there are no savings to see them through.  His daughter said she’d lost the dowry she’d kept in a trunk for six years: clothes, gold, cooking utensils, and cash. 

It’s been all over the news but needs saying again: the international response to this crisis hasn’t been big enough or fast enough to alleviate the suffering of the millions of Pakistanis. … The number of people affected may well be greater than any other disaster we’ve ever seen, but more importantly, people are suffering. And they need much, much more help than we’ve been able to give them.

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