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Interview with President of SOS Pakistan: "We cannot abandon hope"

Children in front of their tent
Children in front of their tent

An interview with Mrs Souriya Anwar, President of SOS Children's Villages Pakistan

Now that the Eid holidays have finished, SOS Children is back to work in flood affected regions of Pakistan, and starting up the relief activities where we left off.

Orders have been placed for a supply of food packages and drugs, and deliveries will start again in a couple of days

An interview with Mrs Souriya Anwar, President of SOS Children's Villages Pakistan

How would you describe the current situation in the affected regions?

That depends on the region. This calamity has taken in its thrall an estimated area covering one-fifth of the entire land mass of the country - equivalent to over 150 thousand square kilometres - so we are talking about an area bigger than the size of England!

It is estimated that this disaster is bigger than the combined havoc of the Kashmir earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Haiti earthquake. Considering the ferocity of the floodwaters, thankfully, the loss of life has not been too high - 1,754 reported so far - but the loss of homes, belongings, crops, animals, livelihood are without parallel. Over 20 million people have been affected, which is about the entire population of Australia and more than that of the Netherlands. It is difficult to put this into a proper perspective, but looking at it in the context of the Afghan refugee crisis, which was considered gigantic; we were then dealing with, perhaps, three million people.

Disaster struck in the last week of July, in the province of Balochistan when flash floods hit several villages. The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which includes Swat, Dir, Kohistan and Shangla (you will recognise names from our delivery areas for relief goods) was the next to be affected, as the River Indus went into high flood, washing away entire villages, roads and bridges. This was a result of the normal melting of glaciers in the Karakorum mountains and the unprecedented heavy rainfall. I read a report that, on one day in July, the rainfall was more than the previous record for the whole month! This is, province-wise, the worst affected area. It is much more densely populated than Balochistan and millions have been displaced with their homes, either damaged, or washed away. The worst is over for them and some are gradually returning to their areas and trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. We continue to send them food packages, as this need will continue for some months. The government authorities and NGOs, are now looking at providing assistance for rebuilding of homes.

Souriya Anwar with children from the SOS Children’s Village in LahoreThe province of Punjab, with 60% of the total population of the country has been, for the most part, spared by the flood havoc, although the river Indus passes down its length, from north to south. The area which has been totally devastated is that of southern Punjab and this is still badly affected. Countless numbers of marooned villagers were rescued from their rooftops and are accommodated in the numerous camps which have been set up. They are slowly returning home as the waters recede.

The flooding has now moved south into the province of Sindh and the same scenes are being repeated - embankments giving way, entire villages inundated, homes disappearing, roads being breached and the unfortunate inhabitants stranded on whatever high ground they can find. It is a terrible scenario and will continue until the flood reaches the sea, leaving desolation behind, so the worst is not over yet.

SOS Pakistan Flood Appeal handing out packagesWhat are the most urgent needs right now?

The top priority is to save lives so the urgent need is for food and drugs. This need has not been entirely met, and I suppose cannot be. The response of the people of Pakistan has been phenomenal but, the problem is so gigantic, that it is extremely difficult to reach all those affected. The army is doing a magnificent job, rescuing people and providing for them. We have distributed tents through our programme, but are concentrating now on food packages and drugs. Requests are now beginning to come in for assistance in rehabilitation, and will be followed by demands for blankets and quilts, as the cold weather sets in.

What are the main concerns regarding children?

There are some reports of children being separated from their families but normally, a family will ensure the safety of their children. A serious concern is the health hazards, as gastro-enteritis, malaria and other diseases take their toll. There are reports of children having died from starvation, and malnutrition - which in any case is a problem - has been exacerbated by the inability to prepare suitable meals for infants, or even provide milk.

How is the general perception of the catastrophe in Pakistan? Do the people in Pakistan stay together and try their best to help the flood victims?

Our people are proud and very resilient. They have faced many disasters in the past and the life of the common man is an on-going struggle for survival. They accept such calamities as God’s will and will get on with their lives as best they can, once they can return to their homes. The generosity of the nation is legendary and there has been an outpouring of support for those affected. The amount of goods that are being collected and distributed is astonishing, with many stories of people who have put their lives on hold and dedicated themselves to the relief effort.

Are there still many International NGOs and local NGOs active in the field?

As always there are numerous International NGOs working in the field. These organizations are the best positioned to provide emergency relief with their resources, professional management and vast experience in handling crisis situations. There are also countless local NGOs active in relief work. It is especially heart warming to witness the concern, enthusiasm and effectiveness of student groups at this time.

SOS Pakistan Flood Appeal Row of TentsDo you think the aid is sufficient?

No, it is not nearly sufficient. The cost of rehabilitating 20 million people and restoring the infrastructure will be astronomical. If we can keep ahead of the game and manage to save lives, that in itself is a big achievement.

What are the plans of SOS Children's Villages Pakistan in the near future and in the mid-term?

For the present, SOS Children's Villages Pakistan is focusing on getting help to the most needy. We are striving to reach areas where sufficient aid is not being delivered and ensuring that all donations received are properly accounted for. This emergency programme will continue as long as funding is available. It will be carried on in the mid-term if any amounts are specifically allocated for rehabilitation. After the present critical needs are met we will explore the possibility of procuring funding from the various donor agencies pledging assistance for rehabilitation efforts. An achievement of this programme is that there is no deduction, whatsoever, being made for administrative costs or overheads of any nature, and that includes transport of supplies. A lot of volunteer support has been harnessed.

If you address an appeal to potential donors what will you tell them?

Pakistan has faced many disasters in its short history. Its very existence started with a catastrophe of epic proportions and this current disaster follows on the heels of the tragic loss of lives at the time of the earthquake, less than five years ago. This, however, is not the greatest threat with which we are faced. We are confronted with a demon which has the potential to destroy us all - terrorism. We have seen how terrorism thrives on poverty and finds disciples amongst simple and poor people, by buying their support. At this difficult time we must ensure that more people are not led astray by showing them that we care, we share their grief and will stand by them in their hour of need. The dimensions of this tragedy are so vast that we need all the help we can get to tackle it - not only in the name of humanity but for our very survival.

Your hopes and fears for Pakistan?

I have great hope in our young people. I am exhilarated by their confidence, their idealism, their enthusiasm and their love for their country. If any group can bring about change, this is it. They have decided that they will not accept the status quo and seek to bring about change, incrementally to begin with, but their voices will be heard. I also have great fears for Pakistan. Our people are peace-loving and tolerant but are depicted in the eyes of the world as barbaric extremists. This is understandable when one takes into account the frequent violent episodes perpetrated by a radical minority. They threaten our way of life and have made the entire country a soft target. It is extremely difficult to confront such a threat and, with imminent changes in a neighbouring country, it is possible that the situation further deteriorates. However, we cannot abandon hope.

Please donate to our Pakistan Flood Appeal