Flood victims going into debt

In Asia, Floods & Storms, News Headlines

NOWSHERA, Pakistan – With their villages in shambles, winter on its way and government help slow to arrive, Pakistan’s flood victims are scrambling to rebuild their homes.

Many are taking on debt as the price of construction materials has soared following the disaster that damaged or destroyed 1.9 million houses.

The rush to rebuild three months after the water first came tearing through is a sign of Pakistanis’ lack of faith in the weak civilian government, a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamist militants whose patchy response to the crisis has undermined its stability. The government has promised it would come up with a long-term reconstruction strategy, but flood victims say self-reliance is a more realistic, and timely, option.

Aid agencies say they, too, are facing the time crunch and are running short of funds to provide temporary shelter for those displaced by the deluge.

Ghulam Ali’s three-bedroom, one-story house in this northwestern city collapsed during the floods. To rebuild, he has had to borrow 50,000 rupees ($583) from friends and family — what many Pakistanis earn in half a year — but it hasn’t been enough to even get past the foundation. To top that off, the 46-year-old lost a fortune in tools and products when his shoe shop was damaged by the floods.

All around Ali in the Abakhel neighborhood of Nowshera city are damaged houses and desperate residents. An older woman next door cried as she begged for help to build “just a room and kitchen.” A few streets away, a family unable to start rebuilding has pitched a tent within their damaged home’s walls.

“Courage and hope is the only thing we have left,” said Ali, whose family has been staying with relatives.

The only family that seems fairly far along in rebuilding is that of the local mason, who said he’ll help others as soon as he gets a roof over his own head.

The floods began in late July and lasted for weeks — some areas are still under water. Around 20 million people were affected — one-third made homeless. In parts of the south and east, numerous villages were swallowed up by the swollen Indus river as it gushed toward the Arabian Sea. More than a million homes were affected in southern Sindh province alone, according to United Nations figures.

The U.N. has asked international donors for $346 million to provide flood victims with emergency shelter, such as tents, and transitional shelter, which are basic structures that typically last a few years. It has so far received only 20 percent of that request.

“We are doing the best we can with what resources we have, but more support is needed for shelter to protect families during the winter months ahead,” said Stacey Winston, a U.N. spokeswoman.

Even getting transitional shelters up and running takes time. Catholic Relief Services in Pakistan aims to build 2,600 such shelters in the north and 16,000 in the south. Over the past two weeks, it has constructed about 100 total. The group says it is on track to finish the ones in the north before winter hits.

But in some areas, “people are definitely starting to build with whatever they can find,” said Carolyn Fanelli, the group’s head of programming in Pakistan.

The Pakistani government has pledged to provide 20,000 rupees ($233) per family now to help rebuilding, along with 80,000 rupees later.

But the distribution of the funds have lagged — most of the flood victims interviewed in Nowshera over the past week said they hadn’t seen any government money. Even if they get the full 100,000 rupees ($1,165), victims complain it won’t build much. Ali, for instance, estimates he’ll need at least 450,000 rupees ($5,244) to rebuild his home.

Several flood victims said they would have to take on debt to finance their new homes, but were worried that without any assets, banks wouldn’t lend to them. Others said they couldn’t afford to take on loans if they had interest payments attached.

Asghar Ali, acting chief of the Disaster Management Authority in the northwest’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said authorities are trying to disburse funds in a fair manner. He said that in many far-flung villages homes can be built using mud, and 100,000 rupees should suffice.

“It’s our responsibility. We are to provide them shelters. We would like them to go back as quickly as possible,” he said.

As more flood victims try to rebuild, demand for materials has sent construction prices soaring.

Cement that sold for roughly 200 rupees ($2.33) a bag before the floods is now 370 rupees ($4.31), said Nadeem Khattak, whose family runs a construction firm and operates a relief camp for flood victims. The price of steel is up by at least a third, he said.

Reports have circulated about people stealing bricks from damaged homes, so many flood-hit families keep a member posted at their property to watch their pile. People who want to buy bricks will find they’re 70 percent more expensive than before, said Khattak, whose own estate in Nowshera was badly hit.

Even many houses still standing will have to be torn down because they are too unsafe. Cracks were visible in the walls of several homes in Nowshera. Some families had hoisted wooden beams to support door frames. Walls were stained as high as 15 feet (4.5 meters), the top of the water line.

For many flood victims, the disaster is beyond anything they could have imagined — even for a largely impoverished nation of 175 million that has lurched from crisis to crisis over its 63-year history.

Several, such as 47-year-old Delkhushad Khan, a kitemaker, grew up in the houses vanquished by the water. Asked how he and others would survive, Khan offered a typical response: “We are at the mercy of God.”

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