Sitting in his office in Islamabad last summer, aid worker John Long listened to the news with a rising sense of disbelief.
“It was coming in on an hourly basis. 70,000 people displaced from here, 60,000 people displaced from there. Your mind just numbs, it’s overwhelming. What are you meant to do?”
What you’re meant to do when you’re deputy head of a United Nations relief office is simple; help everyone. And while millions have been helped, the scale of the disaster means relief work is on-going.
The Irishman says flooding had more impact in a few days than years of terrorist activity with more than 18 million people left homeless.
“It’s heart-breaking,” says Long. “You go into these areas … they have a tarpaulin, a piece of wood, a few pots or pans. That’s their shelter. They get a food ration now and that’s really about it.”
UN relief work
Long works with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). Describing them as the “traffic cop” of the UN, he says the organisation works with other agencies to coordinate aid distribution.
“Looking at the job we do, you’re a humanitarian. You’re not necessarily out there saving babies every morning and all the romantic fantasies that are there. But the thing you can do … is to give people back their human dignity,” he says. “That’s what’s been taken away from them.”
He says one of the “paradoxes of poverty” is that access to doctors and teachers has increased in the stricken areas. Medical staff are treating women with four children who had never seen a nurse before, and it is common for children to learn to read in refugee camps.
Long says the UN now think about four million people were badly affected in the north-west province of Peshawar alone. And that from there the waters of the Indus flooded down through much of the country, taking 56 days from the first rains to the last person who was displaced in the south.
And even now that people can return to the land, their mud-houses have been washed away and the soil is not suitable for farming.
An Oxfam report released this week says the Punjab province was heavily affected and this had been the country’s ‘breadbasket.’ The report cites research carried out by the World Food Programme showing half of the wheat seed stores there have been destroyed.
Long repeatedly refers to relief work as similar to a Band Aid on a deep wound. Praising great work done by agencies like Goal or Oxfam, he says the problem is always one of scale. Giving an example, he says it took ten years to completely re-house people made homeless by the 1994 earthquake in Kobe, Japan.
As the monsoon season begins again in Pakistan, Long doesn’t see the UN’s work there ending anytime soon. He says: “Rebuilding of livelihoods is going to be a key element. I mean, you’re talking about 1.4 million homes destroyed. No government agency is going to rebuild that. The only people who can do that are the people themselves.
“So to help that, you have to get people back their livelihood. We offer a Band Aid, and in the case of Pakistan, it’s a very small Band Aid for a very large cut.”
Pakistan is also home to an estimated 1.7 million refugees from conflict, mostly from Afghanistan as well as almost one million Pakistani people displaced by border conflict.