The worst flooding in Pakistan's history has cut a swath of destruction from the northern mountain regions to wheat fields in the south. More than 16 million people have been touched by the upheaval brought by recent heavy rains.
Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes, at least 1,500 people have been killed, crops and livestock have been destroyed, and heavily trafficked roads and bridges have disappeared.
"One of our staff members from Swat—in the north of Pakistan—told me that the entire map of his district has changed. The floodwaters cut a brand-new path through the land. There are places he doesn't even recognize now," says Carolyn Fanelli, acting country representative for Catholic Relief Services Pakistan.
The images and tales of survival weigh heavily on the minds of CRS staff responding to the emergency.
"Some members of our team met with an entire family swept away by the flooding. The children were in one part of the rushing water, separated from their parents who were scrambling to stay afloat several yards away. There was nothing anyone could do to help. The family was eventually rescued downstream, but one of the children didn't make it," Fanelli says.
"We also met a family who had just celebrated the opening of their own shop the day before the floods. By the next morning, their shop was gone."
Key roads and bridges simply vanished, forcing long, arduous treks over muddy mountain terrain to reach people in remote villages in desperate need of help.
In the last two days, CRS has distributed plastic sheeting, water purification tablets and other relief items to people in the Swat Valley.
"At first, we didn't get to as many families as planned because a new landslide blocked the way—our team got stuck on one side of it," says Fanelli. "But as of Monday, August 9, we've reached more than 2,300 people in hard-hit Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the north. Before that, CRS distributed supplies to 4,000 people in the Kohlu and Barkhan areas of Balochistan in the southern part of the country."
In one area of Shangla district in northern Pakistan, a CRS team discovered that almost all the existing water systems and walking paths were washed away.
CRS engineers are now repairing five separate water systems in the region. The agency has years of experience building and repairing water systems in remote mountainous areas of Pakistan, having worked on hundreds of systems following the 2005 earthquake there.
CRS briefly had to evacuate our office in Besham, a town in Shangla district, on Sunday, August 8, because of rising floodwaters, but staff returned the next day. CRS and our partners have opened an office in the Sharpor Valley of Shangla in order to better serve this remote area.
Once immediate needs are met, CRS will help farmers and others resume work and help rebuild their lives. In several areas, including Swat, CRS is planning cash-for-work projects that pay survivors for their labor on projects, such as irrigation channels, pathways and retaining walls that benefit whole communities.
"It's going to be a long road ahead," says Fanelli. "But CRS staffers are doing tremendous work under difficult conditions."
Liz O'Neill is CRS' communications officer for Europe, the Middle East and Asia. She is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore.