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Pakistan Floods Reshape Landscapes and Lives

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By Laura Sheahen

It started as rain pouring down on Ahmed's house in the northern mountains of Pakistan. Swelling his town's river, the water carried off his house and ate away the land it stood on; he escaped with his wife and children.

The water rushed south, uprooting tall trees and sweeping away cornfields in a fertile valley where Sultana lives. "The water was so fast we saw buffalo floating away," she says. It nearly claimed her 2-month-old granddaughter, but the baby was rescued. Sultana's neighbors sat for days on the roof of their mosque, praying, as their crops and livestock whirled by.

Rashida with family

Rashida, 35, stands with her 3 children in a friend's house. Her cement home was swept away by the flood. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Racing through the valley, the water broke down bridges and overturned boats, claiming their passengers. It took Rashida's cement house. Nine months pregnant, she fled with her husband and 3 children to a small hut loaned to her by a friend.

Farther south, on a hot rainless day, Koonj was feeding her 1-month-old boy when the water started rising. Overflowing the Indus River to reach villages in the Khairpur region, it was up to her neck in a half-hour. Her cow and 2 goats were swallowed up as she boarded emergency boats, holding her baby as he sobbed in the sun.

Nearby, the water swamped fields of cotton and rice, cutting Bashir's house off from what is now mainland. His neighbors now swim to get across the new river. Some men made rafts and stayed near their homes, bobbing as they kept watch over their land.

Miles west, in an area called Nasirabad, Mai was separated from her 17-year-old son in the chaos of fleeing. Three days later, she approached a Catholic Relief Services staff member, weeping. With some help from a cell phone, mother and son were reunited. CRS teams took boats and hiked to provide survivors with shelter, clean water, work, and other aid. For aid workers, it was a race to keep up with the flood as it took over lives across the country.

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In southern Pakistan, a little girl whose family ran from the flood stands in the makeshift camp where they now live. The lake behind her is land that was previously dry. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

As the water flowed toward the sea, it slowed and changed. It didn't rush in and sweep away houses with its force; it gradually spread over flatlands and filled low places. Arfan and Jenna lived 3 miles from an embankment in a place called Thatta. When they heard it was breached, they had time to take their braided-twine cots, but nothing else. It took a day for their house to fill up.

More than a week later, the water is still 6 feet high in their home. "We can see the roof of our house, but there's no way to get there," says Jenna. The water in Pakistan's northern mountains had somewhere to run: downhill. The water in the flat south has nowhere to go.

No one knows how long it will take to recede. Even when it does, it will leave sediment that could keep farmers like Arfan from raising good crops. It brings snakes, too: "I found a snake in my bed over a foot long," says Jenna's neighbor.

Incongruously, at the end of the flood is a desert. Not far from the vast Arabian Sea, surrounded by newly formed lakes and stagnant pools, thousands of people who fled a deluge wait thirstily in the parching sun. Cactus grows in the orange dust of this dry landscape; people spread their clothes over brush to dry. They use the branches and old seed bags to create makeshift shelters, seeking relief from the white glare of the sky. Their camps stretch on for miles.

Dramatically or subtly, gushing or gradual, the water flowed into thousands of villages, altering landscapes and lives. A month has passed and millions of people still can't go home; some never will. Across Pakistan, their futures are being reshaped just as new channels were carved into their land. When the standing water recedes, people will begin their lives on unfamiliar ground, no sure footing in sight.

Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.

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