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Pakistan flood victims take 'double hit'

Rehan Khan / EPA

An aerial view of flooded areas in Pangrio, Sindh province, Pakistan, on Friday. The southern province of Sindh has been hit hard by the floods caused by unusually heavy monsoon rains.

Amna Nawaz, NBC News Producer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – After the devastating 2005 earthquake that struck Pakistan and killed 80,000, Sami Malik, a national officer for UNICEF here, spent months on the relief efforts. “I used to pray I would never again see that kind of suffering in my life.”

Malik has just returned from a four-day, fact-finding mission to Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh, where torrential downpours have caused widespread flooding, and a new humanitarian crisis is emerging.

Malik, a nine-year veteran of the organization, who was also part of their relief efforts during last year’s unprecedented floods, struggles to describe what he has seen.

“One falls short of words,” he said. “Misery is the only word that comes to mind.”

Last year’s floods caught international attention because of the scale of the disaster.

Heavy rains in the north overwhelmed the water channels, forcing torrents of water south. The fast-moving floods breached surrounding banks, spilling over into villages, eventually leaving an estimated 20 percent of the country underwater.

This year’s floods have gradually grown to emergency level due to persistent, torrential downpours concentrated in the south. Of 23 districts in the Sindh Province, 22 have been affected.

According to a recently released United Nations report, an estimated 5.4 million people have been affected so far and 1.1 million homes have been destroyed. Over 300,000 individuals are currently living in relief sites, scattered around the region, and more than 250 people have died.

Malik says many Pakistanis are experiencing a “double trauma.”

“For many people in the worst-affected districts, it’s a double hit,” he said. “They had not yet recovered from last year’s floods, when this year’s hit.”

Str / AFP - Getty Images

Pakistani villagers evacuate household items in a flooded area of Umerkot on Friday.

'Just stranded'
Relief workers say the nature of this year’s flooding also complicates the relief response. The reaction from villagers in this region – most of whom already live well below the poverty line – lacked the panic they felt with last year’s fast-moving floods. They’ve been reluctant to leave their homes and few belongings behind, and when they do decide to move, they go only short distances to higher-ground – not necessarily to larger relief camps.

“It becomes challenging to reach people when you have 100 or 150 people clustering in thousands of areas, as opposed to thousands of people in a single refugee camp,” said Kristen Elsby, Chief of Advocacy and Communication for UNICEF Pakistan.

Malik described one such group he came across in the Mirpur Khas district.

“There were about 100 people, all just sitting outside on an elevated section of ground,” he said. “They said they’d been out of their homes for nearly a month. Their animals had all drowned. They had only two cots they’d propped together to form a makeshift hut.  And they were just stranded.”

Children, among the most vulnerable in any natural disaster, can be disproportionately affected in floods. The population structure in Pakistan – 35 percent of the population is under 14 years old according to the CIA Factbook – means children are among the most adversely affected. Those lacking clean, drinkable water supplies can be tempted to drink the water that surrounds them instead, exposing them to deadly waterborne diseases.

“We saw unbelievable scenes,” Malik recalled from his field visit. “Waist-deep water, as far as the eye could see. And to my horror, children were swimming in that water, swallowing that water, not realizing what it can do to them.”

Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images

A Pakistani flood affected A Pakistani child cries beside a makeshift tent on the high ground of flooded area of Jhudo on Friday.

Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Syed Yousef Raza Gilani have both made appeals for aid from the international community. Iran responded with a $100 million dollar pledge. Japan and China have promised relief goods and donations. The United States has paid for food packages for 23,000 families, and is working with local partners to distribute tents, clean water, and additional supplies.

Gilani today cancelled his trip to the U.S. where he was scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly, so he could stay behind to visit flood-affected areas and oversee the relief response.

For UNICEF Pakistan, the most urgent need is to reach children with clean water, food, and medicine. The organization had already begun responding to the disaster while still gathering data in the field, and now hopes to scale up their response.

Malik says it’s difficult not to feel “increasingly hopeless,” about the situation.

“The lifestyle of these people, even under normal circumstances, is not at all enviable,” said Malik. “They’re already living in the margins of the margins. When such a calamity hits, you can’t imagine how their situation worsens.”