NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 44

Floods: Would-be moms the worst-hit, but who cares!

Zainab Anwaar Khaskheli has been in trouble for the last almost two weeks. A schoolteacher by profession in a village of Dadu district in Sindh, she has been responsible for all affairs of her family after the death of her husband around nine years ago. She has no son and four daughters, with the eldest one married off last year. In routine life, she seldom experiences any issue which she cannot resolve on her own, despite being the head of a woman-only family. However, the situation turned upside down in the last week of August when floodwaters started submerging her village, and she had to relocate to a safer place in an emergency.

Like other village families, she had to set up a tent on a bund as no means of travel were available at all for moving to Karachi, Hyderabad or any other safer city. But life in a woman-only family of Zainab Khaskheli has proved to be harsh. The edibles the family had brought were exhausted in the first three or four days despite their consuming bare minimum amounts.

The issues of food and water shortages aside, the most agonising situation afflicting the family from day one had been meeting women-specific needs. The long but narrow bund strip was mushroomed with tents in the first 24 hours, and no space was left for even a makeshift latrine for the family. The male members of all families around would wade through the stagnant water to go somewhere to answer nature’s call, but it was not an option for the Khaskheli family.

Zainab was hardly coping with these hardships when another bigger misery fell on the family. Her eldest daughter, who was married off last year, had been living with her for the last month under a family tradition, till the birth of a baby. She is expecting in the next three or four weeks, but living in a fatiguing and very difficult situation created health and birth-related complexities for the young woman. It is most painful for Zainab Khaskheli to see her young daughter, who’s hardly 20 years old, trembling and crying with pain. But she could not do anything for the poor soul in the absence of any doctor, or any kind of medical help.

Zainab’s daughter is not a single case of its kind. There are over 600,000 pregnant women, who are facing severe difficulties in the aftermath of unusual monsoon rains and consequent deluges in various parts of Pakistan. The Disasters Epidemiological Susceptibilities and Pandemic Outbreak (DESPO) appraisal shows that nearly 650,000 women are going to deliver babies in the next three to five weeks. Besides the current hardships, these mothers and their newly born babies are at high risk of contracting lifelong ailments as a consequence of several waterborne, vector-borne and airborne diseases, warns the assessment report.

According to the impact overview report, released by the Asia & Oceania Post-Doctoral Academia (AOPDA) last week, these women are not only living in inhuman circumstances currently, their upcoming babies are also at high risk of contracting various infectious diseases including leptospirosis, lymphocytic chorio-meningitis (LCMV) and ailments related to the cell mediated immunity (CMI). The more painful aspect of the misery is the indifferent attitude of government authorities towards the helpless would-be mothers.

DESPO principal investigator Prof Aurangzeb Hafi related one example of this indifference in a talk with the writer. The researcher recalled that when he stressed the need for immediate measures to provide help to would-be moms, in a meeting with a senior government officer, he said it would take at least three to four weeks for action due to cumbersome and lengthy procedures involving different departments.

Prof. Hafi, who has long been researching the issues concerning the pre-birth disability-prevention-centred subject matters in cataclysmic situations, says that childbirths, deliveries or pregnancies are not the kind of a phenomenon that can be postponed or delayed for disasters to be over; or even to be put on hold for the policy-works to be completed. Whatever is to be done is to be done right now. Whatsoever are the steps, the requisite procedures, or the measures that are to be taken are to be taken here and now, without delay of a single day. “By now, shouldn’t we start thinking sanely at least,” asks the researcher.

Prof. Hafi, who was the prime investigatory head of CRRA-CRRM (Child Retardation Risk Assessment & Child Retardation Risk Minimization) projects of the Asian Tsunami of 2004, tells the writer that unprecedented rains and torrential flooding have left over 6.4 million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance lately. Of them, 3.1 million are children, who are at increased risk of contracting waterborne diseases, drowning and malnutrition, he warns.

The DESPO assessment alert had already warned of an upsurge in waterborne, vector-borne and airborne diseases, including fatal leptospirosis, followed by toxic outbreaks due to contaminants carried by the floodwater. Many of these indicators were markedly specified in the post-disaster cursors of the DESPO Assessment Report 2014 also, but no lessons were learnt from the previous calamities, regrets Prof Aurangzeb Hafi.

In many hard-hit areas of Pakistan, poorly maintained sewers are overflowing, carrying along heavy toxins and remnant industrial waste, thus contaminating drinking water supplies. The floodwater in many areas bears high toxicity concentrations and strong indications suggest the presence of arsenic along with a considerable number of other toxins coming from industrial sewers. And if the situation prevails for another 10-15 days, it will lead to a number of hazardous ailments, especially among pregnant women and newly born babies, explains the researcher.