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Specter of Famine Looms in Pakistan’s Floodwaters

August 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The immediate need for food and water is crucial for Pakistan's flood victims to survive, but spending more time in unsafe conditions threatens to create long-lasting health issues, homelessness and even famine. Jeffrey Kaye reports from northern Pakistan on the public health nightmare facing flood survivors.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn next to the catastrophe in Pakistan, where flooding is spreading further south. The United Nations estimated another one million people have been displaced. In the north, where the devastation began, survivors cling to life in desperate conditions.

Special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye is there and filed this report.

JEFFREY KAYE: On July 29, a village died. Over the course of an hour, floodwaters engulfed Zareenabad. Nearly all of its 11,000 residents escaped to higher ground, but at least three people died and dozens are still missing.

Now many survivors live between the tombstones of the local graveyard in a settlement below the foothills, along a windy strip of land, sharing space with the local graveyard in a settlement called (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE) which translates as “New Village of Tents.”

NAJEEB ULLAH, aid worker: We have provided 370 tents.

JEFFREY KAYE: Najeeb Ullah, project director for a Pakistani aid group called IDEA, says as many as 6,000 people are now refugees in their own neighborhood, camping out on a narrow strip of land that sits between a hillside and their flooded village.

Supported by the international relief organization CARE, the villagers have received tents and cooking utensils. Water is delivered by trucks. But this is a public health nightmare. People get enough food for about one meal a day. Waterborne diseases and skin infections are on the rise. One reason is the absence so far of sanitary facilities.

Right now, there are no toilets for how many people?

NAJEEB ULLAH: For 5,000 to 6,000.

JEFFREY KAYE: Five thousand to 6,000 people without toilets?

NAJEEB ULLAH: Yes, without toilet.

JEFFREY KAYE: Not far away, near Peshawar, the troubled northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, health workers tend to some of the destitute who live in tents along the roads close to their fields.

Dr. Guido Sabatinelli, an epidemiologist, heads the U.N. World Health Organization’s Pakistan operations, which helps fund the medical assistance.

DR. GUIDO SABATINELLI, World Health Organization: That is used for washing themselves, or they don’t wash. There are days that they don’t watch. Look at this children. This is scabies. Look at that. Look at that.

JEFFREY KAYE: And how serious is this?

DR. GUIDO SABATINELLI: This is a very heavy infection.

JEFFREY KAYE: And spreads?

DR. GUIDO SABATINELLI: And spreads all over the body, of course, and, of course, it spreads inside the community. This is — the cause also is that this is contagious. This is a family. Probably all the family has the same. So, this is just the child, but the mother, the father, all the other children, they have — they are in the same condition.

JEFFREY KAYE: Health dangers are compounded by tents’ location, pitched, as many often, close to standing pools of water.

What does that mean in terms of the health risks?

DR. GUIDO SABATINELLI: Very soon, we will have, if they are not already present, mosquitoes. I can check if there is larva now already. Yes, look at that. This is anopheles. This is a larva. Malaria will occur, of course, in Pakistan every year, one million cases of malaria. We are expecting to have five times more. So, we are expecting these — five million of cases, and we are preparing for that.

JEFFREY KAYE: Not only do the smallest insects pose big risks. So too do large animals. In poor rural areas, livestock is a substantial investment, often the only precious property salvaged from the floods.

By keeping them near their tents, people risk contracting infections from their animals. Pakistan’s widespread devastation is straining the country’s already inadequate medical system. The U.N. says 500 health facilities have been damaged or destroyed, so many schools and colleges have been turned into shelters and clinics. Among them is the government college of technology in Nowshera, also in the north of the country. People with medical conditions, flood-related and not, are being treated in a converted classroom.

“When the water level started rising, we left our home,” Ruida (ph) explained. She and her family went to a relative’s house, and then came here, where she gave birth to a premature baby girl. She also brought her 2-year-old daughter, who is suffering from malnutrition.

On a cot not far away, another woman was caring for newborn twins.

DR. GUIDO SABATINELLI: Fifty thousand, 60,000 delivered in the next three months, so that is needed to be supported and delivered in a proper…

JEFFREY KAYE: Is there capacity for that?

DR. GUIDO SABATINELLI: Not presently.

JEFFREY KAYE: Some 600 displaced families are living on the school sports field. This camp has facilities not found in some of the more impromptu settlements. A bicycle-powered filter purifies water for drinking. There are facilities for women to do laundry. Oxfam has provided toilets, separate ones for men and for women.

While the world is focused on the immediate needs of Pakistanis, homelessness, health issues, rebuilding, et cetera, this is also a crisis in slow motion. The long-term well-being of millions of Pakistanis is in jeopardy.

DR. RAJIV SHAH, administrator, United States Agency for International Development: There are millions of people in an acute humanitarian crisis right now. And the world needs to do everything we can to protect those lives and save those individuals. But, at the same time, we have to help Pakistan start thinking about how to build back better.

JEFFREY KAYE: When Dr. Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, came to Pakistan earlier this week, he called on the international community to help the country rebuild its infrastructure.

DR. RAJIV SHAH: Building back in an environment that is more resilient to floods and heavy rainfall, as well as producing an agricultural economy that can be more effective even when the rains don’t fall.

Part of the reason we have this crisis is, for 10 to 12 years, there has been lower-than-average rainfall, and people didn’t expect and didn’t maintain the flood protection systems that had been in place.

JEFFREY KAYE: The agricultural sector is a pillar of the economy. Najeeb Ullah took us to ruined croplands adjacent to the flooded village. Farmers also lost much of their livestock. Provincial officials are now raising the specter of a looming famine. Devastation not only describes the village. It also applies to the outlook of its former residents, unable to make a living or envision their futures.

AKBAR SHAH, Pakistan (through translator): I have lost everything, including my shop. All the tools that I had, I have lost, and I can’t work anymore.

JEFFREY KAYE: Akbar Shah watched most of his house fall apart in the flooding. His family of 12 now lives in a tent by the flooded village. He lost his meager life savings.

AKBAR SHAH (through translator): It’s up to Allah and to people like you who can come and help us, because we have lost everything. We have nothing left. We don’t know what to start with.

JEFFREY KAYE: People may have to live in the tent city for five to six years, according to relief worker Najeeb Ullah.

How much longer can you provide assistance before you run out of what you’ve got?

NAJEEB ULLAH: So, actually, we have three-a-half months, funds for three-a-half months.

JEFFREY KAYE: According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, six to eight million people need immediate humanitarian assistance, but only about 1.5 million have received it. Little wonder that people like Akbar Shah and others in his graveyard village feel trapped and helpless.