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Pakistan: Flood-stricken children's vulnerability

Pakistan: Flood-stricken children's vulnerability increases because of politics and negligence of authorities

Darja Merkina

The current floods are having a detrimental effect on children’s health due to the potential outbreak of endemic waterborne diseases. The UN Office for the Co-Ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) spokesman, Maurizio Giuliano, has confirmed that 3.5 million children are affected by endemic watery diarrhoea and dysentery. The shortage of clean water and malnourishment further enhances the chances of contracting endemic skin diseases such as scabies, conjunctivitis, endemic respiratory infections such as pneumonia and mosquito-transmitted diseases such as malaria.

The children require sustained medical treatment as their immune systems are weakening every day. According to a report by the World Health Organisation 3.7 million children under the age of five years in the flooded areas are expected to contract severe diarrhoea and around 80,000 are expected to be born malnourished within the coming six months. Despite efforts of the international health organisations to cope with this situation, the authorities have been delaying the supply of food, shelter, medical treatment and most importantly clean water.

Furthermore, the WHO report states that children at risk of contracting waterborne diseases and children, who have already contracted such diseases, need immediate attention by the health authorities. However, the authorities appear less and less able to assist those in need and the 759,952 children, which require intravenous fluids as they are too sick to take the food orally, will face health issues, which may then result in the contraction of lethal diseases such as cholera and severe diarrhoea. A vicious circle will result, which will only be halted if more efficient aid comes internally.

Nevertheless, instead of attempting to improve the internal aid infrastructure, the irrigation department’s bribes to increase the provision of water to courses soar. Thereby the officials are creating an artificial shortage of water and contributing to the destruction of cash crops in flood affected regions. The Chairman of the Sindh chapter of the Farmers Organisation Council (FOC) Javed Ali Junejo blamed the authorities for the resulting famine due to the deliberate inadequate supply of water to the agricultural areas.

Most importantly, the supply of clean water to the flood-stricken regions is essential in order to prevent deadly waterborne and communicable diseases. Efforts by the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) have been made to fly over clean water from India and the installation of Spanish water purification equipment is in progress. These developments have been appreciated by the people, who previously have been drinking unclean water; however, this help is insufficient to cover the needs of the flood victims. The government has been highly criticised for not being able to provide quick and efficient help to the flooded regions. Oxfam's country director in Pakistan, Neva Khan said that communities desperately needed clean water, latrines and hygiene supplies, but the resources currently available covered only a fraction of what is required.

The slow deliveries of food, delays in water supply and the continuous danger of rising flood levels result in public infuriation with the government, which can easily develop into an inclination or even an affiliation with the radical militants. The people are helpless and are blaming the government for having abandoned them and most importantly, the most vulnerable members in their families, their children.

The impact of the fury of the people will be felt by the whole Pakistani population. On the one hand, it no longer seems improbable that a military may coup take place. Recently, fears have been expressed that the army might overthrow President Zardari. The editor of the weekly Friday Times, Najam Sethi, said: "The powers that be, that is the military and bureaucratic establishment, are mulling the formation of a national government, with or without the PPP (the ruling Pakistan People's party). I know this is definitely being discussed. There is a perception in the army that you need good governance to get out of the economic crisis and there is no good governance."

On the other hand, looting and people turning against each other in this desperate situation spurs the increase of lawlessness. "The immediate risk is one of food riots," said Marie Lall, an Asia analyst. "There is already great resentment in Swat and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where people had to be cleared during the government offensive. Now there is the threat of social unrest as various factions, families and ethnic groups compete with each other in the event of a breakdown in government." In this desperate situation, children are most severely affected by the lawlessness, where the principle of the "survival of the toughest" is the only existing principle.

In any event, social unrest or military intervention will shift the focus away from the children, who despite having survived the immediate effect of the flooding, are now facing an even higher risk of dying from the endemic waterborne disease. Therefore, it is important that the internal political situation is kept separate from efforts to tackle the humanitarian effects of the disaster. Just as the opposition leader Sharif said in a joint news conference: "Politics at this time is haram (forbidden by Islam),"

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.


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