The struggle to keep flood survivors fed in Pakistan

Publié: 26 mai 2011 16:20 CET

By Rabia Ajaib and Kathy Mueller in Pakistan

"We were short of food after last year’s floods destroyed so much. It is now eight months later, but the situation is not improving," says a young father as he waits in line to receive a food package from the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS). "It is still difficult for us to find enough food for our children."

Things were bleak before the Indus river overflowed its banks here in Jacobabad, Sindh province last August, sending muddy water coursing through precious farm fields. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 22 per cent of the Pakistani population was existing on less than one dollar a day. But at least families had an income; many worked in the agriculture industry. They could also grow a lot of their own food. When the flood waters did come, it was the poorest who were the hardest hit. Not only did they lose their homes, their source of income, and their crops, they were also the most vulnerable to fluctuating food prices; prices which skyrocketed after the floods. Some resorted to taking out loans so they could feed their families.

Aid agencies are helping; the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has reached more than 2.5 million people through its distributions of food items, seeds and fertilizer. But farmers say the next crops in Jacobabad won’t be ready for harvest until October. And with donor funds drying up, there is only so much aid humanitarian agencies can provide.

"These food items will be enough to feed a family for one month," says Shakeel Ahmad, a volunteer with PRCS as he helps to hand out packages of rice and flour. "But once it’s gone, their hands will be empty and they will be looking for external support to get food and fill their stomachs."

Interacting with flood survivors on a daily basis, Shakeel knows the reality on the ground. "People in the flood affected areas don’t have extra food stocks. They don’t have money to buy food. Their children are malnourished and are getting sick. Mothers who are feeding newborns are also not in good health. If we can provide them food until the next crop, that would definitely be a big help for them."

The poor are hit hardest

Those most at risk of chronic hunger are the poor, and victims of catastrophes. In Pakistan that translates into millions of men, women and children. According to the FAO, 26 per cent of the population, or more than 43 million people, is undernourished. This means they don’t eat enough to be able to lead normal, productive, active lives.

"Lack of food has an all pervasive impact on the physical well-being and socioeconomic condition of a nation," says Dr. Jamal Shah, health coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). "Education and access to high quality, vitamin-rich food, and safe drinking water go a long way to eradicating undernourishment and malnutrition."

But it takes a combined will to make that happen, by donors, aid agencies, government, and the people themselves. The PRCS, with support from IFRC, is wrapping up its second round of food distribution to 55,000 families in Sindh and Punjab provinces. The 116 kilogram parcels contain items vital to the Pakistani diet, flour, rice, ghee and sugar, and are designed to provide food for a family of seven for one month. The Red Cross Red Crescent will supplement this food aid with the distribution of seeds, fertilizer and technical expertise to a further 50,000 of the hardest hit households. More than 17,000 families will also receive cash grants to help them rebuild their damaged homes, or to replace assets lost in the floods so they can resume their work and provide for themselves.

For people like Nazir Ahmed, a father who barely managed to escape the rising waters with his family, he welcomes the help and the opportunity for a better future. A proud man, he is embarrassed to admit he needs assistance, and looks forward to the day when he can once again be self-reliant. "Once we get crops from these seeds, we will not need to ask for help from people anymore. It is a day I hope comes soon," Nazir says as he loads his bags of seeds and fertilizer onto his donkey, preparing for the walk back to the tent he and his family still call home.