As CRS employees in northern Pakistan stood on the office porch watching the floodwater rise, they also videotaped a nearby building. Through the pouring rain, I see a ragged chunk of the wall being eaten away, as if the water were taking bites out of it. Then, within the space of a few minutes, the roof began sliding down. It was all over in a half hour.
After a day of waiting, the staff eventually made it home, using ropes as they walked through waist-high water to get to safer ground. The CRS office survived undamaged, but across the region, hundreds of houses collapsed. A few feet in front of the office, what had been fields was a floodplain.
All the way up the region’s valley, the scene is the same. Walking over one floodplain, my local colleague gestures at the mud. “There were houses right here.” I squint, looking for remnants, but can’t see any. Unlike other flooded places I’ve seen, there are no poles, no fragments of doors, no bits of clothing or paper. There’s nothing. Just muddy silt and rocks.
“We can’t even tell where our house stood,” says an elderly lady named Pola.
Catholic Relief Services plan to build thousands of transitional shelters for flood survivors throughout Pakistan as part of the work of Caritas in Pakistan. Piloting the programme in the north, CRS built a 14×18-foot demo home for Pola’s extended family. The metal walls are insulated with foam, while a small yard cordoned by plastic sheeting ensures that women will have privacy–important in cultures where they traditionally cannot be seen by men who aren’t relatives. There are separate spaces for cooking and bathing.
“I like the structure and the design,” says Pola’s relative Liaquat, 40. He has six children and has been living in tents or at his brother’s house.
In the south, where winter temperatures are not as severe, Caritas will build shelters from more lightweight material. For people who might be able to return to their own land once it is safe, most of the structure can be disassembled and rebuilt.
“We lost our house. We are sleeping under this tree,” says a woman named Noori in a southern region called Sindh, gesturing to three dilapidated cots. Some of the homes in her village survived—their high-water marks between two and six feet—but villagers are afraid to live in them, worried the flood-damaged walls or foundations will give way.
In another area of Sindh, villagers who still cannot return home wait out the days in a wide, barren field under thatching propped up by poles. Four dozen women and children sit here on cots crammed together in a space smaller than 20×15 feet. They’re side by side with water buffaloes also seeking shade in the 100-plus heat. At night, the husbands return with their other animals, and over 60 people will sleep here.
“We’ve lived here a month,” says 22-year-old Koonj. She is a new mother, and her baby was only four weeks old when the army evacuated them from their homes. “Our houses are still flooded.”
CRS and Caritas are working quickly to get stopgap shelter such as tarps to flood survivors like Koonj. The next step will be the lightweight houses, made with bamboo and other materials.
In the north, where most of the floodwaters have receded, Liaqat and his family are preparing to move into their new home. After weeks of living in different places, his 10-year-old son is glad they’ll have their own place: “This is better.”