Photographing Pakistan’s Disastrous Floods – The Washington Post


As we entered one of Pakistan’s worst flood-affected areas, for miles and as far as the eye could see, temporary settlements laden with tents sprang up for newly displaced communities along the main road. Families had begun to live in hastily constructed shelters, clinging to what little possessions they had left.

As I walked past this rather overwhelming sight, I found it poignant that just two years ago I wrote similar words warning of the effects of climate change for The Daily Telegraph.

During the summer, my country was hit by one of the worst natural disasters in modern history. Weeks of torrential rains have led to the creation of a 100-kilometre-wide (62-mile-wide) lake in the heart of the country. Now, in September, a third of Pakistan was submerged under water. Where cars used the national highways a few weeks earlier, we now cruised in small fishing boats for hours. These boat rides took us to families in isolated villages from where we were able to report on what had happened and whether the humanitarian response led by the government, military and other agencies was reaching those who needed it the most.

Unsurprisingly, most villages that no longer had road access had not yet received aid. As our boat stopped in front of one of these villages, you could see the crowds starting to gather on the shore. As we were traveling with an aid agency, our boats were filled with basic necessities such as wheat, oil and sugar, products that people had not seen since the floods began. Police personnel had to guard the workers while they distributed aid. Our boat nearly capsized due to the chaos caused by people desperate to feed their loved ones. It was heartbreaking to see.

Many docking stations have sprung up over the past month where boat operators help people get around and transport goods, often at a price they cannot afford. These docks have started to look like bus stations where operators shout out the time when the next boat will be sent to an affected village. One evening, I found myself on one of these quays, attending a funeral procession where the deceased was transported by his relatives on a boat. It was just surreal.

It also made me realize that the worst is probably yet to come, when the country will have to rehabilitate the estimated 33 million people who are now displaced and have no means of earning a dignified income. Most of the people I photographed were more concerned with their livestock than their own lives, and it was disturbing to realize that most of the animals were not going to survive.

By far the hardest part of covering this climate catastrophe was photographing young children at Dadu Hospital in Sindh Province, one of the worst affected regions. As photographers, we are used to capturing misery and devastation. But few things are more difficult than having to photograph a young child who is unlikely to survive the night.

Desperate people often confuse photographers with aid workers. As we tell them that the only way to help them is to tell their story, we often wonder if this is even true. The world is already forgetting the climate carnage in Pakistan, a country that contributes less than 1% to the global carbon footprint but is vulnerable to the worst climate disasters.

I hope this is a wake-up call for the rest of the world. Today it’s Pakistan, but tomorrow it could be the whole world.

Saiyna Bashir is a Pakistani freelance photojournalist currently based in Islamabad. She works on international assignments for The New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic, Telegraph, Wall Street Journal and others.

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