Monday, September 13, 2010

Operation Flood Relief - Swat, Pakistan

Picture 1: Thumb prints along with names and id card numbers of those who were identified by a survey team and then received the rations
Picture 2: This river flowed on the far left corner, while a road and houses existed where the river is now. All points beyond where we were standing were now cut off with no access to food supplies. The river was originally 50 m across, now its 230 m!

Picture 3: This is a blurry picture of a US army helicopter participating in the relief effort.
Picture 4: Just one of the many bridges washed away by the floods.

A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to participate in a flood relief effort that a friend of mine had organized. Knowing my friend to be a good planner and executioner, I took it on to accompany him during one of the many trips he'd carried out for the relief effort. Here is a narrative on my experience.

Purpose: The specific relief effort that I was part of consisted of approx USD 16-20K of food items (with due thanks to a lot of individuals that my friend had been able to reach out to). Each assigned person was to receive 2 bags of food. Which was:
a. 20 KG of Wheat
b. 20 KG of misc items including: Rice, Cooking Oil, Sugar, Tea, Onion, Potatoes and Pulses

Scale: 500 families were targeted ie 500 x 2 bags = 1000 bags = 40,000 KG's of food.

Strategy: A local NGO was picked to provide administrative support. The benefit of local on-ground NGO's with active presence during the pre-flood days being they have good awareness of the ground situation as well as crowd management, a major issue which I'll refer to later. The particular NGO picked during my trip was MuslimAid, a UK based charity organization.
Our original goal was to target Mianwali, a city in Punjab submerged by water, but thanks to the feedback from the NGO, it was made clear that this particular town had now started receiving flood relief and aid. Swat, an area in the north western area of Pakistan (now known as Khyber Pakhtoon Khwa) however was not receiving much aid and the situation there was quickly becoming catastrophic. So Swat became our target area. Specifically Bahrain, Kalam and Uther town residents (there is no road link to any of these towns at the moment)

Execution: Three trucks loaded with relief goods were prepared with the help of MuslimAid, and directed to move towards Swat. In parallel, an on ground team started the survey of affected families and handed them coupons for collecting the ration items at a pre-stated distribution point and time. Most of the families sent an adult member or two to hike to the collection point to bring back the ration.

The trucks reached the point of distribution in the morning while we (NGO rep, my friend and I) headed off to the area separately. At the pre-determined time of distribution, the NGO rep first gave a run down of the distribution strategy to those who had gathered. Only those who were in the list were to receive it, so others need not wait. And being orderly was a requirement since everyone on the list would receive the rations, and it may take some time but at least no one would be hurt in the process.

Most of the folks had come after a day or ever 2 days of trek. Swat is unique in the type of flood devastation since it was not devastated by the water coming into the towns as its a mountainous area, but because of massive landslides. The landslides had cut off major towns of the area that were known to be dependent on the lower areas since vegetation and food items were not grown in abundance at high altitudes.
Most of the rivers had carved out 2x areas for themselves. An analogy would be to assume the grand canyon was populated by thousands of people and the road network to be around the cliffs of the Colorado river. And the river suddenly swelling up and eating away all the bridges and most of the road network by carving out double or even triple area for itself leaving people stranded on cliffs and mountains (those who were not washed away) with no food.

As the folks came by one by one on their name being called, they lifted two bags weighing 40 KG on their backs; an immense sense of sympathy struck me on what still remained for them to return back to their families. A trek of a day or two with two bags weighing 40 KG must be back breaking. I do hope all of them reached their loved ones and they were able to have a decent meal to eat for a few weeks (our estimation was the ration would last a family of 5 around a month).

Conclusion: Relief effort is not for the faint of heart, although I believe we should all make an effort to participate with on site presence, since it helps ensure minimization of wastage since food is not dumped in the wrong areas or distributing of wrong items is fixed by enabling quick feedback to the stakeholders.
And by using on ground NGO's or other individuals well versed with the locals, who have done their homework in terms of identification of needy families and individuals, the distribution can be extremely gratifying knowing its going to the needy who may not be strong enough to stand random food throws from the sky or fast moving trucks. The planned effort also ensures:

a. Fairness - Relief goods that get thrown from trucks or helicopters in crowds typically lead to the toughest men receiving it. It truly is the law of the jungle since every man and women are up for themselves in trying the snatch whatever they can grab for sustenance. The worst affected individuals suffer since they're typically too weak or hurt to be in the crowd.
b. Civilness - Random distribution leads to reinforcement of unruly behavior during relief distributions. We observed a distribution of water bottles during our trip (claimed by someone to be from Jazz/Mobilink), where two individuals were throwing away bottles and two were using sticks to fend off the crowd from climbing into the truck. Once they left, it could be seen that a few folks had a few packs of bottles while most had nothing. The sad part was that this area had ample clean water since Swat is an area of natural water springs! It was food that was scarce.
c. Measurable benefit - All individuals who collected the relief items were checked against their national ID card number to be residents of the affected area in addition to having the coupon and listed in the survey list. The ID card numbers were then to be submitted to the local administration to ensure they know which families have received rations to facilitate other ongoing reliefs. Of course, I think its obvious the lists would not be used by local administration since they're not known for their competence, however that shouldnt be a reason for not following through on this practice.

Miscellaneous: A number of helicopters could be seen flying, both Pakistan and US army. It was heartening to see US army active in the humanitarian relief effort since the only way to get food to the worst affected areas is to ask the folks to do the 1-2 day trek (like we did), or use helicopters.