The majestic Hindu Kush mountains in Chitral, northern Pakistan, supposedly a rain-shadow area, were my vacation destination this July when I witnessed a rainstorm like never before – so devastating that the road links were cut off and flights cancelled to my hometown Islamabad, forcing my friends and me to extend our ‘vacation’ by another week. Flight safety is an issue around high-altitude destinations, and we had to resort to a twelve-hour road trip back home, which included crossing makeshift bridges by foot and arranging another car on the other side of the river that had washed away half the decades-old iron bridge.
What I saw during those twelve hours is so surreal, it still seems like a recollection of imagery from the Tempest! Entire bazaars by the rivers – always a densely populated area due to the high fertility of soil and easy access to running water – have been washed away, most houses are either partially or fully damaged, and electricity poles are half bent with many areas having been deprived of electricity for more than a month now.
United Nations estimates put the number of people affected by the floods at 20 million; its refugee commission stating that 4.5 million of the survivors are without shelter. Most unfortunate is the fact that a majority of those affected by the flood already belong to the 22.32% of Pakistanis that, according to the United Nations Development Fund, live below the poverty line, i.e. $16 per adult per month – oblivious to the existence of amenities such as cars, insurance, or even bank accounts. Most rely on subsistence farming, or live on rented land, a large proportion of the produce of which they are obliged to give as gratuity to the feudal land owners.
After witnessing the disaster first hand and learning about the devastation caused across the country, I knew I had to step up to help the millions rendered effectively without anything other than the clothes they had on. Luckily, I was not alone. I had with me a group of students and young professionals collectively known as the Future Leaders of Pakistan (FLP), a not-for-profit youth organisation committed to leadership development through community service and awareness, and eager to ascribe to our title, we launched a campaign to collect donations right then. Deeply concerned and perturbed by the lack of able leadership in our country, our motto is “Serve to lead, lead to serve”; each of us strongly of the belief that one can only become a leader by serving one’s community directly. Seeing the extent of damage rendered by the floods, we knew that this was the time our country needed us along with every other citizen to take the lead and serve our people in every way possible.
We received an overwhelming response from students, professionals, elders, as well as some businesses, with people willing to volunteer, donate, or simply spread the word. The campaign began on our Facebook page that is linked to our website, and this way we were able to mobilize resources and people to reach out to flood survivors from the Swat valley up north all the way till Thatta near the Arabian Sea, with active teams in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.
The response from those we helped has been very moving. An old man hugged me twice after getting relief packages, relieved from uncertainty of basic survival, and battling tears with a smile on his frail lips. Another greeted us by saying “May you always live an honorable life”, honor clearly being of utmost importance to him. One village elder was overwhelmed by the notion of young people from the cities driving for five hours to help survivors and said “We would have been satisfied even if you had come empty-handed!” When medical students went along with our team as volunteers to counsel and give hygiene packs to women, one of them thanked the team, saying it was for the first time in a month that females had visited and spoken to them.
Our relief activities have not been restricted to distributions. Our team of volunteers that personally goes to distribute relief also engages in counseling the survivors and uses each opportunity these efforts bring for us to improve the lifestyle of the survivors. We have been giving demonstrations on how to cook quick and healthy porridge for infants, for example; considering porridge is easy to make, high in energy, and easy to digest for children. We have also distributed toys to give a sense of belonging to children left with very little, that often excluding their parents and siblings, and put a smile on their and their caretaker’s face.
With most survivors lacking access to potable water, food, and health services in the wake of epidemic threats, let alone education, jobs, and housing; each and every effort of any degree counts, and it is this limitless potential in us as individuals, and part of communities, nations, and international organizations that we have to realize and make effective and urgent use of. It is our duty as human beings to ensure that rehabilitation efforts continue in different forms, and enable the survivors of the worst natural disaster to be able to support themselves with dignity.
In June 2011, we initiated, through FLP, an interest-free micro-finance programme for flood survivors to enable them to start up their own work, with loans of Rs. 15,000 payable over a flexible period of time.