Disabled suffer most in aftermath of Pakistan floods

Last Updated: Sun, Oct 10, 2010 18:51 hrs

Tangi (Pakistan): Brittle bone disease has left 19-year-old Zakia completely dependent on her parents and siblings since childhood.

But the worst floods in Pakistan's history, which uprooted the entire family, have made it even more difficult to cope with the everyday challenges of her disorder, officially known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta.

At home, for example, she had a specially made commode. But it was lost with all the other family belongings when the surging waters of the river Swat inundated around 100 houses in her village, Tangi, in the Charsadda district of the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Now, living in a temporary relief camp consisting of dozens of tents, Zakia's family sometimes carry her to the nearby fields for her to go to the toilet - but they cannot spend all day by her side.

She is just one of the around one million disabled people who have been affected by the floods that started in late July and continued for weeks, affecting at least 20 million people, killing around 1,750 and submerging an area larger than England.

According to official estimates, between five and ten percent of the Pakistani population is disabled for various reasons. Some have been the victims of diseases such as polio, others suffer from diseases originating from social trends.

Muscular dystrophy and brain disorder is on the increase, especially in rural areas, due to marriages between cousins, a widespread practice in Pakistan.

Thousands of people were also left disabled after the deadly 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, in which more than 70,000 people died and around the same number were injured.

Since 2007, dozens of suicide bombings by suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants, targeting government offices and public places, have increased the number of disabled people, many of them living in the flood-affected areas.

In a country where around 38 million people live below the poverty line, the burden on those families coping with disability is extreme, particularly when their means of living have been washed away by flooding.

Pakistani government and international donors have rushed to help the flood victims but the focus has remained mostly on the general needs of normal people - such as food, shelter, clean water and medical health.

The needs of disabled people have been last on the list of priorities, say aid workers.

They have not always been able to access food and other relief aid, especially when the floods were just beginning. Aid was only arriving in small quantities and those affected would scuffle to get at the food.

The disabled could only sit and pray that one of their family members would manage to get some food and share it with them.

'The number of disabled people hit by the floods is so huge, but no one has focused on their needs,' says Asim Zafar, the founder of charity Sayya Association of Persons with Disability. 'Various forms of disabilities have various forms of needs and consequently various forms of care.'

'Almost everyone, whether international aid organisations or local charities, their focus is normal people. There is a sort of discrimination towards disabled people,' Zafar adds.

He himself suffers the effects of polio and is confined to a wheelchair, though years of weight-lifting have given him a well developed upper body.

He has come to Tangi to distribute wheel chairs, white-canes, portable commodes, urine bags, clothes and other essential relief aid.

'The biggest problem for most flood-affected disabled people is that their mobility is further decreased at the relief camps,' he continues.

'They sit in the scorching heat or intense cold till someone comes to their aid and moves them to some shelter,' Zafar says.

Zakia is one of dozens to have benefited from aid from Zafar's organisation.

'I was totally helpless, completely depending on my family members,' she says. 'But with this wheel chair I have got a new life. Now I can go around to take care of my own needs, see people and make friends.'