Last updated: 24 january, 2011 - 17:24 GMT

Giving Pakistan flood victims a voice

Asma of the Pashto team (left) and Rizwana of the Urdu team manning the phones

Asma of the Pashto team (left) and Rizwana of the Urdu team manning the phones

BBC Lifeline Pakistan Editor, Amber Rahim Shamsi shares some of the positive personal stories that have vindicated the work done by BBC Urdu through its emergency radio programming.

Even in Pakistan, the most devastating disaster to ever hit the country is no longer news.

Since July, when the flood waters began wreaking havoc on the lives of 20 million people – nearly one tenth of the country’s population – the national conversation has gradually shifted back to the political break-ups and make-ups.

The course of the flood continued to make headlines, but the people still struggling with its aftermath did not.

“I spent 15,000 rupees [$176] in transportation costs, just to get this card,” says 31-year old Aftab.

What is BBC Lifeline Pakistan?

BBC World Service Trust, the BBC’s international charity, helped launch the BBC Lifeline Pakistan radio broadcasts.

This unique service provides information on topics such as where to access food, ways to prevent illness and how to locate family members – just some of the problems faced by those affected by the floods.

Broadcasts on BBC Urdu provide listeners with updated information three times a day in both Urdu and Pashto.

Although still a humanitarian crisis, the situation has moved on from emergency response to dealing with reconstruction issues – and the lifeline media service can continue to provide critical advice and support.

Funded for the first two months by both the UK’s Department for International Development and Irish Aid, the service has now secured further funding from both UN OCHA (the United Nations office coordinating humanitarian affairs) and Plan UK’s humanitarian relief department.

Research is also being carried out into the changing needs of Pakistan’s flood victims to ensure that the information broadcast reflects what people have asked for and need.

He fled from his village in southern Pakistan with his family of five, moving from camp to camp to get a hold of the Watan card – a debit card worth 20,000 rupees [$235] provided by the Pakistani government to flood victims as part of its compensation package.

When I ask him what he will do with the remaining five, he answers: “I’ll get some clothes for my children.”

Enormous challenge

BBC Lifeline Pakistan – an emergency radio programme launched by BBC World Service Trust, aired six times a day in Urdu and Pashto – can't give Aftab back his home or his 15,000 rupees, but it can ensure that he is not forgotten and that his voice is heard.

In the first two months, the scale of the flood was such that no province in Pakistan remained untouched.

One of the challenges in covering the floods is that the stories are as varied as the terrain – from the remote mountainous region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan to the coastal district of Juhi in the south.

We can't tell every story or ensure every area gets equal treatment, but we do try.

Direct impact

In October, private philanthropist Omar Ahsan called the BBC office in Islamabad to tell us about a relatively inaccessible valley in the north in Gilgit-Baltistan, where he was distributing food packages.

Flash floods had left thousands homeless and they had not received any shelter or aid packages from the government.

I asked our presenter Rizwana Mehtab to pursue this story and talk to the locals and the authorities concerned.

Eventually, we managed to reach the chief minister, Syed Mehdi Shah, who admitted that the plight of these people had not been brought to his notice, but that he would “do something”.

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Ameer Haider Hoti (right) being interviewed by BBC Urdu

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa chief minister Ameer Haider Hoti (right) being interviewed by BBC Urdu

When Omar revisited the area two weeks later, he hapily reported that tents and food packages had been distributed soon after our programmes.

“They want to thank you,” he shouted over the phone to Rizwana, the crackle in the background indicating a great crowd.

Panic button

But officials are not always that easy to get hold of.

We repeatedly tried to get in touch with officials in Dir, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, an area that was all but forgotten.

However, either the lines wouldn’t go through or they were avoiding the BBC – something we’ve grown accustomed to in the last four months.

Sample of calls received

“My wife has a fever and I don’t have any money. What should I do?” Punjab

“Nothing, we get neither food nor Watan card.” Punjab

“I’m not getting the Watan card. Please convey my message to the government authorities.” Punjab

“My children are living in the open, please help.” Punjab

“Five months has passed after flood, but still there is no electricity in our place. Please, I’m requesting to fix our electricity system.” Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa

“I’m not getting anything and I don’t have blankets and warm clothes.” Sindh

“Police are taking 5,000 rupees bribe to provide us the Watan card. Poor people are getting nothing.” Balochistan

Two of our reporters – Asad Zia for Pushto and Mudassar Hussein for Urdu – insisted they wanted to go to Dir, where communication channels were still being repaired and bridges had been washed away.

We didn’t hear from them for four days.

On the fifth day, when we were ready to hit the panic button, Mudassar called saying they were alive and had many stories to tell.

Tough conditions

The two had been to a school in Upper Dir – or what was left of it.

Ninety children under the age of nine were sitting on large boulders, slates in hand, torn bags at their sandaled feet. They were looking towards the solitary teacher who had a blackboard, but no chalk to write with.

“I want to study, but it’s so cold and there is no roof over our head,” eight-year-old Rauf Khalid told Mudassar.

In temperatures that had dropped to freezing, sandal-clad Rauf had to cross the river either by a creaky cable lift or tread a makeshift bridge of stones in order to get to school.

The assistant district officer of education, Mohammad Zahir Shah, told Mudassar they had written to the provincial government for money since they didn’t have the resources to reconstruct the school buildings. Indeed, all the schools in upper Dir have been completely or partially destroyed by the flood.

Positive stories

Urdu and Pashto team meeting, with BBC Lifeline Pakistan Editor Amber Rahim Shamsi pictured right

Urdu and Pashto team meeting, with BBC Lifeline Pakistan Editor Amber Rahim Shamsi pictured right

Shah brought home to us the fact that, while some officials can be slippery, at times they are just helpless.

But it is such individuals who inspire others with their resilience.

At a girl’s school a few feet away from the primary school, an eighth-grader indomitably teaches a group of 80, because their teacher can’t get to the school.

And it is positive stories like these that have helped sustain the BBC Lifeline Pakistan team over these last few months.

Read more about the work done by BBC World Service Trust in Pakistan by clicking click here

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