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Pakistan aid director: Generosity will dry up

<em>An estimated one million people have been displaced by the fighting between government troops and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, creating a major humanitarian disaster. Graham Strong,Pakistan country director for World Vision, discusses the crisis. </em></p>
Image: Children push and shove in a scramble to get food at a refugee camp
Children push and shove in a scramble to get food at a refugee camp in Mardan, in northwest Pakistan, on Monday.  Greg Baker / AP
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An estimated one million people have been displaced by the fighting between government troops and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, creating a major humanitarian disaster. Graham Strong is the Pakistan country director for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, working on relief efforts. He discussed the humanitarian crisis and the efforts to tackle it with Can you describe the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan?
Graham Strong:
Today I was actually up in the Buner district. This is where the IDPs [internally displaced people]have been moving out of. We wanted to try to get further into Buner to see what was going on in the conflict area.

We managed to get about 20 minutes into the district of Buner – into a village called Dagai. We were trying to move further into Buner, but the community asked us to please not go any further because of security concerns.

So we spent a lot of time in Dagai. We found out that since the violence started, a lot of the IDPs coming out of Buner have come through Dagai, into the camps and host families in Swabi. Many also went into Mardan, but not through this route.

The elders in the community made a very rough estimate that about 7,000 people were currently being hosted in the area. But Buner has been off-limits to most humanitarian groups, so most people have not been registered with authorities as IDPs. Only very limited services have been provided to these people.

All of these people are living within host communities or with host families. When you are living with a host family, they are usually relatives. But the community also hosts people who might be strangers. They are put up shelters or guesthouses that are available in the community. The community ends up taking care of them – trying to provide food, accommodation and some basic services.

What are the concerns of people you met?
One man we met was named Shardaj Khan. He is about 36 years old and had been working in Dubai, but lost his job as a result of the financial crisis. He was coming back to Pakistan when the fighting started to happen. Twelve of his family members managed to actually get out of the conflict zone and he brought them to this village. Of those 12, three are his children and his wife. He is from a village called Koga, which is further north, but currently he has no access to it.

His major concern right now is the livelihoods the families have left. A lot of the people are farmers who have agricultural land that needs to be harvested right now. He basically said that if they don’t harvest by the end of May – they are going to lose their livelihoods for next year. So he is very keen to get back to his village so he can save his crops. 

Shardaj said he felt very vulnerable because he is not sure how long the community will be able to stretch their resources to host them.  He was also very concerned about the extent of the damage to his home. He was not very hopeful that they would be able to return very soon.

We heard very similar stories from many others in the area.

Can you describe the scene in the internally displaced camps?
I think the camps are getting a lot of attention – but they are only housing about 12 percent of the displaced population; about 88 percent of the displaced population is in host families or host communities.

When I visited one of the IDP camps on Sunday, I was rather impressed in terms of camp coordination. There were tents, toilet facilities, power was going into a camp we visited in Jalala and food services were being provided.

Still the camps definitely need to meet a higher standard and they are working on that. They are also going to need continuous support depending on how long the crisis lasts.

We are seeing a lot of generosity coming in now from the general Pakistani population. But what we’ve seen happen in the past is a big wave and then all of a sudden that dissipates. The humanitarian community needs to have the resources to continue the services once that initial wave of resources comes in.

The urgency in the camps is to maintain the services. But the concern for World Vision and other agencies is to access the displaced people and figure out how to support the host families and host communities because they are putting a real economic burden on them. 

Once they can no longer afford to host them, then people are forced to move to the camps. Understanding the Pakistani culture here, camps are definitely the last resort. People are doing their best to move into host communities to maintain some of their cultural dignity and be able to have some privacy.

What are the biggest challenges that could make the humanitarian emergency worse?
The latest figures estimate that over one million people have already been displaced. But the humanitarian community and the government are saying that we need to plan for up to 1.5 million internally displaced people. We haven’t reached that number yet, but we are still seeing more people come.

The temperatures in that area of Pakistan are beginning to climb to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. How will the heat contribute to the humanitarian crisis?
Yes, within the next two to three weeks, we are expecting pretty intense heat. I spoke to a man named Ishmael in one of the camps in Swabi. He has an 11-month-old child and he had a very traumatic experience getting out of Swat Valley. His biggest concern was the heat in the tents, especially in terms of his child.

The biggest issue is ensuring access to clean water – and a lot of it. That is definitely a priority in the camps and also in the host communities. As temperatures continue to rise, ensuring access to water and adequate coverage in terms of shelter and shaded areas is going to be absolutely essential.

How is the humanitarian situation being addressed on the ground? Are the international non-governmental organizations working with the Pakistan government?
The effort is to try to coordinate the response. The humanitarian community is working along with the provincial relief commissioner. Everyone is trying to do their best to coordinate the response as best as possible. There are a lot of coordination meetings being held in Peshawar and Islamabad.

Within the humanitarian community, there is coordination through what the U.N. calls the “cluster approach.” … The “clusters” are sectoral areas such as water and sanitation, health, education, food, nutrition, protection, shelter, camp management. Different clusters get set up at the provincial level and the Islamabad level; then they try to get all of the agencies to strategize their relief efforts around these different issues. So they can try to develop a coordinated response and try to avoid overlap or gaps in terms of service.

How can readers help?
At this point, this is Pakistan’s largest population of displaced people in their history. I would encourage people, if they can afford it, to donate in order to ensure an adequate and coordinated response to help address the humanitarian crisis. The World Vision Web site has a page where people can safely donate to help Pakistan’s displaced people.

I would also like to stress that while a lot of us are now thinking about the displaced populations and it is important for us to respond to that, it is also important to look down the road to when people are able to get back to their communities. A lot of their crops, livestock and homes will have been destroyed. There is going to be need for a huge effort in terms of rehabilitation.

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