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Racing against time to save Pakistan’s children

Children under 15 make up 37% of Pakistan’s population and it is the young who are most vulnerable in the wake of disasters. With a scarcity of fresh, safe water in Pakistan following the floods, it is therefore unsurprising the country’s hospitals are now witnessing a flood of a different kind.

Children and infants are falling prey to water-borne diseases such as gastroenteritis and diarrhoea. Many parents in Pakistan are now worried that as well as destroying their homes and belongings, the flood waters will take their children from them too.

In the children’s ward of the Nowshera district Hospital, one father could be found swatting flies and mosquitoes away from the faces of his two young sons. Jamal, 8, and Aftab, 5, are two of the many children admitted to the hospital, where staff are battling to treat all the acute cases of diarrhoea. The boys’ father, Shamal Ali, said he had managed to save his family from the waters which submerged his village of Pir Sabaq, only to find the health of his children deteriorated day by day. He feared he might lose them too. There was no clean water to drink and the water they had tasted like “acid”. Some aid agencies, like Merlin UK, have set up mobile clinics to help treat diarrhoea victims. One of their teams has already been dispatched to Nowshera.

In the sixth week after the flooding, Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, is warning that the time is now critical for Pakistan’s children. It is estimated that 72,000 children may be at risk from malnutrition and as many as 3.5 million from waterborne diseases.

In cities like Thatta, in southern Sindh, many thousands of families are still living on the streets without water or sanitation. And though around 20 per cent of people in this area have now returned to their villages to salvage what they can, many thousands of refugees remain in camps and settlements, where conditions are reported to be desperate. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has opened two new offices in Sindh province, in Karachi and Sukkur, to help co-ordinate efforts to manage the camps and distribute supplies.

But there is still a huge logistical task ahead, with some areas affected by the flooding having received little attention, especially those lying further away from the Indus river. The UNHCR is particularly concerned about Balochistan province, where almost 2 million people, including around 600,000 who fled from neighbouring Sindh, have extremely limited quantities of food and little shelter.

Aid agencies across Pakistan are working extremely hard to extend the reach of their help, conscious it is now a race against time to save lives, particularly those of Pakistan’s children.

Laurinda Luffman signature