Khurshid Bhatti: Funding shortage, violence are top aid worker fears in Pakistan

With much of Pakistan submerged in floodwater, delivering aid to displaced people has proven to be a huge challenge for aid groups. Photo by: Jason Tanner / Save the Children

Aid workers serving in flood-hit Pakistan fear two things: diminished funds and violence, says Khurshid Bhatti, president and CEO of the Association for Humanitarian Development.

For almost three weeks now, Bhatti and his team have been helping entire communities affected by Pakistan’s unprecedented flooding move to safer ground. They have relocated thousands of people, provided water filters for clean water and continue to scour remote areas, trying to help flood victims.

In addition to Bhatti’s emergency relief work with AHD (he has been with the organization since 2007), he helps to develop and distribute new water filters in order for people living in Pakistan’s rural areas to have access to clean drinking water.

In an exclusive interview with Devex, Bhatti discusses the day-to-day working conditions of relief workers on the ground and the unique situations they face.

Paint the picture for me. What is it like on the ground right now in terms of getting aid to these flood victims?

Most of the people are well aware of the severity of the floods. It is estimated that one-fifth of the country is affected by floodwater. In Sindh province alone, there have been about 71 deaths recorded.

It is estimated that more than 400 people have been injured, about 462,251 houses damaged and 3.6 million people affected by the flooding. It is very difficult for the Pakistani government to provide assistance to these displaced people due to the lack of resources and corrupt or poor management plans. Without the help of NGOs, big tasks such as providing food, shelter, clothing, medicines and clean drinking water cannot be accomplished.

For the last 19 days, our AHD team has been working in the Dera Ghazi Khan district, south Punjab, Than Sukkur, upper Sindh area and, now, with the floods in the lower Sindh area, we are very busy in those targeted communities.

The AHD team is working with a group that includes two doctors, and five male and four female staff to find and rescue people and give them safe drinking water. So far, we have more than 290 water filters prepared and installed. These are helping more than 2,000 households in different places in Sindh.

The flood-affected people are expecting food, clothing, shelter, medicines and clean drinking water. And although the officers of the Pakistan Navy have rescued people from the floods, they can’t provide them with all that they need. The government has provided shelter to a few people — in a kind of tent — or has settled them in nearby school buildings. But it has not given food, medicine, clothes or clean water. Only a few NGOs are distributing meals at a given time during the day, which is not enough.

Tell me a bit about the situations aid workers face when delivering assistance.

People generally welcome aid workers, but, in some situations, such as this devastating flood where people have lost all of their belongings and government officials are not providing any assistance, some people get angry and start looting. This is natural as people’s expectations are greater than the assistance given by government officials and NGOs. In some instances, it becomes impossible for male aid workers to assist the women. Sometimes aid workers are attacked by desperate people who are in need of supplies, especially food.

There have been security concerns recently. The Taliban has threatened to launch attacks against relief workers. What are the security concerns currently affecting aid workers?

The Taliban are only in the North-West Frontier Province [now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa]. But here, in Sindh, people can’t find food and shelter, so they are attacking trucks, and some NGO offices, to get food. I personally hope that NGOs acquire sufficient funds so they can provide everyone with food. [In such a situation,] there should be no fear. Our very own Dr. Sadaqat Khokher is doing medical work in Kacha and Sukkur. He says there’s no fear of violence in those areas, but people are hungry and they need food. Lack of resources disallows the government from responding to such emergencies. This is one of the main reasons for looting.

Has your team encountered any violent incident?

In Sindh’s upper area, staff from other NGOs were beaten. But we have been working there for one week now and our male and female staff have not experienced anything like that. They are all safe.

What is being done to ensure the safety of aid workers?

Usually, our staff go out as early as 7 a.m. and come back to the office before sunset, between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. But now, with the rescue work going on, our male staff are out there in the field, living with the people as well as army and navy personnel. So they are being protected. At night, however, there is fear because there have been reports of looting in some houses in the Kacha area.

What is the most challenging factor in delivering aid?

Transportation is the main problem. The target areas are situated far from the main cities and public transportation is insufficient. If aid workers are provided with proper vehicles, it would be easy for them to gain access to the affected people and give aid in a timely manner. In flood-affected areas, people are expecting more aid from relief workers, but NGOs do not have the resources to help them. Our resources for providing assistance to people in remote areas are limited.

We are installing water filter units in areas where people have temporary shelter. We only have two small jeeps for field visits and can only carry a maximum of four filter units during each visit. If we had better transportation, we can reach more affected people. During its visit, our team has noted that people do not have proper water containers. We are planning on providing them with plastic tanks with a storage capacity of 500 to 1,000 liters so they can store water for daily use.

How is your team working around the transportation issue in order to provide aid to areas that need it?

Sometimes they use transportation to load and unload goods for distribution. Sometimes they walk 1 to 2 km or more to survey the surroundings and get information about families living in far-flung areas and ensure that people get food.

Where are aid workers working, living, eating and sleeping?

Our male aid workers are local and we have five female workers from our main office. Our local aid workers usually live among the people in affected communities.

In an emergency such as this, there are usually no beds available, so they sleep in tents if they have them. Sometimes, they sleep out in the open or on the ground. Some of our aid workers, especially the female ones, usually work the whole day. In the evenings, they come back to the office and then return to their homes.

What would you say are aid workers’ biggest fears right now?

Personally, I believe that the aid workers’ biggest fears are lack of funding and violence. On the issue of funding, aid workers are willing to work for the betterment of flood-affected people in their respective areas of assignment, but organizations like ours have very limited resources and cannot meet all the needs of the people.

As you know, people in our area have low salaries and, therefore, cannot meet their daily necessities. NGO staff work extra hours and expect some extra income from the office. If we provide them with extra money on top of their salaries, they will work more efficiently. Most NGOs have no extra cash to deal with emergency situations such as this flood. Usually, NGOs provide assistance using money from other projects, which is not a good practice.

As for violence, we don’t experience it all the time, but aid workers encounter that in certain situations. Female aid workers are more vulnerable in remote areas. But AHD has a good reputation, so we have not faced any violent situation.

Tell me about what happened the other day, when your team had to be rescued by helicopters.

Five of our team members went to Tando Hafiz Shah (part of the Thatta district with more than 350 small scattered villages and a population of 25,000) to see the actual situation and assess the damage. When they reached the area, a Pakistani Navy officer approached them and requested them to go with him to rescue women and children who refused to leave their submerged houses. The officer believed that, if they went with him, they could convince the people to leave. So, they agreed to help. Unfortunately, the uneven surface punctured a hole in the bottom of the boat and it began to sink. The navy officer had to call a helicopter to rescue them. I think the officers appreciated the bravery of our aid workers because no other other NGO came to help the people in that area because it’s so remote.

Why do some women refuse to leave their houses?

First, people have had unpleasant experiences with government officials in the past. The government would rescue people and take them to safer places, but end up not providing any assistance such as food, clothing, medicines and clean drinking water. Second, all of their possessions, more importantly, the wheat grains for the entire year, are there. Government officials told them they would be rescued, but they would have to leave their belongings behind. If they wanted them back, they would have to make arrangements to personally get them. I think a lot of people don’t want to leave their houses for those reasons, even if their houses are sinking. As for the women, some of them refuse to go with male navy officers and request that female rescue workers assist them.

What is the situation like right now for women aid workers? What role do they play in the relief efforts?

It is true that women help other women more than men. It is easy for women aid workers to work amongst flood-affected women because female workers are more accepted than the males. We have observed that women only open up to female aid workers to discuss personal health concerns. The situation in flood-affected areas is very favorable to women aid workers. They are playing a very vital role in assisting the people in our areas. Usually, women discuss gynecological and other health-related problems more openly and freely with other women.

About the author

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    Sam Mednick

    Sam is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan. Over the past 12 years she’s reported on humanitarian, human interest and conflict stories from around the world. Sam’s work has taken her to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, writing for VICE, the Associated Press, Devex, Barcelona Metropolitan and iPolitics among others. Sam also produces and hosts the Happy Melly Podcast, interviewing authors, speakers and thought leaders about what it takes to live productive and fulfilling lives.