A query from Lahore the other day about whether the town of Jacobabad was submerged got me on the phone with friends to inquire. Fortunately, it was just a rumour. But in the process, I got information that had to be used… hence this feature, published in The News today.
Floods turn the world’s hottest place into an island
Jacobabad is famous for being one of the hottest places in the world with temperatures reaching up to 52°C in summer, April-Sept. This year, the unprecedented floods in Pakistan have done nothing to cool things down for this colonial town. Temperatures in Jacobabad district, on the border of Sindh and Balochistan, remain excruciatingly high despite floodwaters submerging surrounding areas.
The old town of Jacobabad, founded in 1947 by a British General John Jacob, is for now at least a virtual island, accessible only by boat despite its distance from the river. Gen. Jacob, commandant of the Sindh Horse for years, died and was buried here in 1858. Today the Victorian tower erected in his memory watches over an almost abandoned town.
Despite the superflood that swept towards the area in mid-August, most people were initially reluctant to leave. Eventually they were left with no choice – although an estimated 20 percent of the population still refused to go. They now hold fort in Jacbobabad, cut off from the world by the floods.
Come September, as floodwaters start to recede, people are starting to trickle back to town, ferried by boats that locals say more often than not bear banners of the Sindh Rural Support Organisation (SRSO), a NGO that has long been working in the area.
The navy operates around 80 emergency boats around the flood areas. In addition, Aman Foundation (started by Arif Naqvi of Abraaj Group) which recently launched Karachi’s first fully equipped private ambulance service, has imported 20 inflatable boats for emergency services. AF has loaned 15 boats to the navy, 3 to the army and air force, and 2 to the brothers Nadir and Amir Magsi, political heavyweights in the Kambhar-Shahdadkot area.
“Our boats are meant for emergencies, not to be used as ferries or taxi services, which is how many local influential’s try to use them,” says Usman Jaffrey of Aman Foundation, which recently conducted a four-day UN-organised relief and rescue operation in the area with a team flown in from the UK. “The navy has personnel with the expertise and training to operate them.”
Eye infections in the Jacobabad area are on the rise, says Aslam Khwaja, a journalist volunteering with flood relief in Sindh.
The most widespread illnesses are related to skin disease, say Aman Foundation doctors, who have treated some 25,000 patients. “Next diarrhea, and after that chest infections and ENT (ear, nose and throat) illnesses,” says Jaffrey.
Disease carriers and parasites like flies that thrive in the heat and damp have greatly accelerated the spread of such illnesses. Aman doctors have not come across snake-bite cases yet although over 200 have been reported around the country, some of them lethal.
American actress and Unicef ambassador Alyssa Milano, who has adopted Pakistan flood relief as a cause and is furiously (heartwarmingly) tweeting and talking about it, recently drew attention to a photo of sleeping children covered in flies. “There are 30 pics here, but I’m begging you to look at this one☛ http://bit.ly/d5ngCl” (Picture of the Day, Sept 1, 2010, Telegraph, UK).
The problem is that while aid and donations are coming through, and tents are being provided (a bulk of them by the army), many people are not being provided food. Trucks and vans with relief goods going to affected areas often find themselves mobbed or even attacked.
There is no organised relief distribution, or security for volunteers, say aid workers. “The only place I can think of which is a model of management is the Aga Khan University (AKU) camp at Kharadar,” says Jaffrey, talking of a relief camp in Karachi.
The colossal losses people have suffered (including revenues and the loss of livestock) and likelihood of reconstruction taking months if not years, puts a question mark on whether Jacobabad’s famous cattle show and camel fighting competition (the world’s oldest), will indeed take place come February.