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Mothers tell how Pakistan's monsoon floods have upended their lives

Left to right: Nazia, Mubina and Leila saw their homes washed away in the flooding. They now share a tent at a technical college that has been converted into a camp for displaced people.
Diaa Hadid
Left to right: Nazia, Mubina and Leila saw their homes washed away in the flooding. They now share a tent at a technical college that has been converted into a camp for displaced people.

NOWSHERA, Pakistan – Mubina's hut was washed away by Pakistan's extraordinary floods over the weekend.

It was so fast – Mubina collected her five kids, their ID cards – and scrammed. Her husband, who she says is drug addict, saved only himself. "He ran off," she says. "He didn't even turn his neck around to see what happened to us."

Now Mubina, who has only one name, is staying at the Nowshera Technical College, sharing a tent with her neighbors, two other women who also came with their children.

She's one of the many millions of Pakistanis reeling from the record floods.

A roadside view of the toll

On the highway from the Pakistani capital to the northern city of Nowshera, you can see the damage caused by weeks of unprecedented rains: Dozens of displaced and destitute people have flung up tents on the roadside. Some even put up lean-tos to shelter the cattle they managed to steer out of flood waters.

A makeshift camp in the Nowshera district inhabited by Pakistanis who fled their homes in the wake of heavy monsoon rains. The picture is dated Aug. 30.
/ Hussain Ali/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Hussain Ali/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A makeshift camp in the Nowshera district inhabited by Pakistanis who fled their homes in the wake of heavy monsoon rains. The picture is dated Aug. 30.

And in Nowshera, just one of the cities affected by floods after the nearby Kabul River burst its banks last Saturday, authorities scrambled to convert 25 institutes – technical colleges and universities — and student hostels into shelters for families rendered homeless.

The scene in one of those institutes, the Government College of Technology, Nowshera, spotlights the challenges facing Pakistan as over 5 million people scramble for food, water and emergency aid, including half a million who need shelter, according to U.N. figures. They are the human face of a seasonal monsoon rain cycle that began in mid-June and dumped three times the expected amount of water onto Pakistan. Some areas received up to six times the expected amount.

Men line up to fill bottles and wash utensils with water from a government tanker at a flooded area on the outskirts of Nowshera.
/ Diaa Hadid
/
Diaa Hadid
Men line up to fill bottles and wash utensils with water from a government tanker at a flooded area on the outskirts of Nowshera.

Making matters worse, the monsoon's once-predictable trajectory has also changed, experts said — likely because of human-induced global warming. (Warmer air holds more moisture.) The monsoon steered into unexpected places, like hilly areas, causing flash floods from mountainsides. The combined toll of those flooding left about a third of Pakistan under water, has washed away nearly 300,000 homes, dozens of bridges and more than 3,000 miles of roads.

"What we are facing today has been no above average monsoon. It is an entirely new level of climate-led catastrophe," said Pakistan's foreign minister, Bilalwal Bhutto Zardari at the launch of a joint appeal with the United Nations to raise $160 million for emergency aid.

Trying to find a temporary haven

In the Nowshera Technical College, which opened for displaced people last Sunday, around 500 families registered within the first three days, said Zar Aly Khan, the government official in charge.

A crowd of Pakistanis made destitute or homeless by this summer's flooding produce identification cards to register for temporary shelter and food on the grounds of a technical college.
/ Diaa Hadid
/
Diaa Hadid
A crowd of Pakistanis made destitute or homeless by this summer's flooding produce identification cards to register for temporary shelter and food on the grounds of a technical college.

Tents were set up amid the buildings – and trash-strewn lawns — on the sprawling college complex.

Many of the flood victims turned up because the assistant district commissioner of this district, Qurat Al-Ain Wazir, marshalled an effort to alert people to evacuate days ahead of the river bursting its banks. Wazir herself even went door-to-door in some parts, telling people to leave, earning her widespread praise online.

"We informed people through mosque loudspeakers, through social media, through WhatsApp. We evacuated and rescued a lot of people."

Saved, but their homes destroyed.

This week, about three dozen desperate people smushed around the door to a room in the technical college that Khan had commandeered into a HQ, once a college administration room. They pressed in so tightly that the headscarves of women were ripped off – in a part of Pakistan so conservative that most veil their faces, not just their hair.

Flood refugees press against the door of the office where they can register for a camp offering tents as temporary housing.
/ Diaa Hadid
/
Diaa Hadid
Flood refugees press against the door of the office where they can register for a camp offering tents as temporary housing.

Khan and volunteers helping him register families were ensconced inside the office, using a chair to jam the door shut. Its large window was smashed by an earlier wave of desperate people trying to register.

"We have to deal with such kinds of people!" exclaimed one adult volunteer, who said he'd been working for three days without rest.

A man furiously jotted down the details of new families, copying details from ID cards into a large registration book. He could not work fast enough. A relentless tide of people streamed through the front gate, including one family who clip-clopped in on a cart hitched to a donkey.

Khan says registered people have access to clean water, bathrooms and two meals a day at his shelter. But on the ground, it's a fight to get the essentials to survive.

Fighting to make sure women and girls get food

Crowds swarmed around an open-backed jeep where a man handed out plastic bags filled with cooked rice. People banged on the side of the vehicle to try getting the attention of the man handing out food. Some jogged to keep up. Elderly people fell behind. One woman managed to get a bag of rice, but a man grabbed it from her hand. It tore open and much of the rice scattered on the grass.

One woman, Zubaida Begum, scolded the jeep driver for causing chaos — and for leaving women behind, declaring: "I want to ensure that women and girls are getting food." Begum sees this as her mission: She runs a small women's aid group and visits displaced camps to check on how vulnerable women and children are faring. "It's hard for women here, for widows, for orphans," she says.

In this conservative area it's frowned upon for women to be in public, let alone press for their needs. Many can't even read or write.

Locked toilets, a lack of period pads

Mubina is one of the new tent dwellers. She guesses she's around 35 and works as a cleaner. She says that one of her five children, a son who's 10, works in a furniture carpentry workshop.

The tent where she now lives with two other women and their children on the college campus is just a tarp hoisted up by a pole. And there's even a shortage of these temporary havens across Pakistan because the floods have been so devastating. Her life right now is a grab bag of uncertainties. She doesn't know when she and her kids will eat next. She doesn't know when they can use the toilet.

The women in Mubina's tent say there's only one toilet for females and it's sometimes locked for reasons that aren't clear to them. Open urination is common for men but the area is too conservative for women to do that. So the mothers and their daughters are always holding it in. Her friend Laila, a 31-year-old mother of three, leans in and says, "We don't have period pads either."

Leila, who only has one name, says the last time she and her family were displaced by floods in 2010 – which drenched about a quarter of Pakistan's landmass – aid groups gave them packs with underwear and period pads.

Usually these women use clean washed rags to absorb their period blood. They can't afford pads and find them culturally weird to use, but Leila said they were handy in crisis situations like this. "Right now, we are using our dupattas," she said, referring to the long scarves that women here use to cover their face and hair.

The women aren't sure when they will be able to leave the camp. They were given cash to rebuild their huts after the devastating floods of 2010 and said they were hoping for money this time too. "Without money, we can't rebuild. We aren't people with means," said Leila, who said her husband, like Mubina's, is a drug addict.

Flooded-out mothers reflect on climate change

It's unclear when rebuilding will occur. The U.N. and Pakistani appeal is earmarked for emergency aid to cover immediate needs such as shelter, food, sanitation and education for kids. It is just a fraction of the $10 billion that the planning minister Ahsan Iqbal told Reuters that the country would need to rebuild flood-damaged areas.

But as climate change makes these drenching rains – and floods – more intense, it's not clear if Pakistan's layers of government have plans to rebuild in a way that adapts to a changing, more extreme climate.

The women in the camp, who were all neighbors in riverside huts, said they would rebuild by the Kabul River when they can. "We can't afford to build anywhere else," said another woman living in the tent, 35-year-old Nazia Bibi. The river side is cheap, she said, precisely because it's prone to flooding.

Are they worried that there'll be another flood? The women shrug. They had not heard about climate change. They've also done very little to contribute to it.

On Aug. 29, residents of Nowshera wade along a street flooded during the monsoon season.
/ Fayaz Aziz/ Reuters
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Fayaz Aziz/ Reuters
On Aug. 29, residents of Nowshera wade along a street flooded during the monsoon season.

The women don't have cars, or even motorbikes. The last time they ate meat, they recalled, was when they were given charity on the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha in early July.

When I ask if they've ever been on an airplane, Nazia burst out laughing. "I've never been on a plane. I've never even seen an airport!"

She says she can't connect a line between driving a car, eating meat or flying a plane and the changes in climate that contributed to the flood that washed her home away. "Our destiny is written," she says. "God has rewarded some people in this life with so many blessings, but maybe in the afterlife, God will reward us too."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.