As consumers in a market economy we take much for granted, including our ability to select from a wide range of goods and services. As mass consumers (and by default waste producers) we fail to appreciate the value of things and see only the (monetary) cost. It is only when confronted by disaster that we begin to appreciate the true value of even the most basic of human needs, such as shelter, food and sanitation.
During the Christmas break I had the opportunity to experience first hand the devastation caused by a natural disaster. Travelling as an aid worker with the London based charity Ulfa Aid I was able to visit one of the flood stricken regions of Pakistan.
Ulfa (meaning to connect hearts and minds) is explicitly non-partisan, with no political or religious affiliation. The charity provides assistance to disenfranchised groups who receive little or no assistance from either political parties or religious groups.
Ulfa Aid established contact with Professor Muhammad Syed Awaise, a respected Orthopaedic Surgeon and Social Activist. He along with his medical team, Foundation for Health Care Improvement, are renowned for their humanitarian work, and have been providing free medical treatment and aid to displaced people, especially in the flood district of Jampur.
In addition Professor Syed Awaise is also the Vice Chancellor of three Universities: the University of Lahore; the University of Punjab, and; the University of Multan and Bahawalpur. This provides access to additional resources which have also been deployed to assist in the aid programme.
When the floods first struck in late July 2010, the Universities immediately undertook a survey to establish which regions were the most badly affected. They concluded that the village of Jampur was the one most in need of support. Jampur, known locally as Gopang, is in the district of Rajanpur, which is a 6 hour drive from the city of Lahore.
The land around Gopang is relatively undulating and is typically used for dairy pasture and subsistence farming. When we arrived the land was blanketed in silt from the receding waters of the mighty Indus river, which passes by some 3Km from the village. The villagers informed us that during the floods the waters swelled to reach between 2m and a staggering 5m above ground level; at the time all they could do was run to the safety of higher ground, where they eventually pitched some make-shift tented shelters. Indeed until recently these encampments could only be reached by boat. The waters have now mostly receded, although some large ponds still remain as testimony to the cause of the destruction.
As we approached the village we stopped off to see the universities base camp; a basic block house with beds, medical supplies, and cement. It was refreshing to see a volunteer base that was simple but effective; no wasted expenditure on fancy 4×4’s or 5 star accommodation for volunteers. A basic clean building that is cost efficient and effective, ensuring all the money and aid reaches the people without a ‘middle man’ or unnecessary administration costs. Professor Awaise and his team had already started digging the foundations for 20 homes, which were allocated to specific families.
The purpose of our visit was to meet with each of the families affected by the floods and to establish with them their needs, and the needs of the wider community. After an intense round of talks with the heads of the village and the various University teams it was agreed that a range of new facilities were required, including a medical centre, a mosque and a communal area. We had also observed that geographically Jampur is a centrally located within the flood region district and would be an ideal location for a school. Consequently this too was added to the list of facilities to be provided, all of which would be financed by Ulfa Aid.
Further rounds of business talk were held in Islamabad with a company who manufacture prefabricated housing units. The system is basically an insulated expanded polystyrene sandwich (EPS) panel on a lightweight steel structure, which come with a 30 year guarantee. The main advantage of the system is its high strength to weight ratio. It also performs well under extreme conditions such as earthquakes, high winds, storms, fires and extreme heat and cold. The housing units have low maintenance costs and are designed to be disassembled, flat packed and moved to a new location if necessary.
We had the opportunity to sit inside two of the completed structures; a two bedroom unit with bathroom and foyer and a one bedroom with similar amenities. The temperature difference was immediately noticeable, providing respite to the dense chill of the Pakistan Spring. The internal finishes were tidy with straight walls and neat corners. Over 1000 of these homes have already been successfully constructed in Kashmir to re-house those dispossessed by the earthquake of 2005.
During our discussions with the house builder we presented our proposals for the redesign and expansion of the village. Having agreed the layout the contractor has now committed to an incredibly tight delivery programme with the housing expected to be completed by February 2011.
Deprived of all the basic human need that we in the developed western economies take for granted the people of Gopang maintain a remarkable positive outlook on life. Although swathed in blankets to protect them from the intense cold of Spring, the children were a vision of beauty; full of wonder and admiration at their visitors. They were so polite, kind and funny and seemingly oblivious to their condition. Every child deserves the basics of food, shelter and love.
I don’t think I’ll ever get their glowing faces out of my head, and it’s a constant reminder that these children need our help, no matter the political or religious climate; the poor shouldn’t be left to suffer due to no fault of their own.
By Aminah Babikir.