In Pakistan, floodwaters hide new dangers

Historic floods have left families devastated. Water-borne diseases and malnutrition are compounding the threats to their safety.

Catherine Weibel
Pakistan. A woman sits on a bed in a tent with two of her children.
14 October 2022

JAFARABAD, Pakistan – From a distance, the scene looks harmless. We’re driving along an elevated road through Jafarabad, a district in Balochistan, in the southwest of Pakistan, that is surrounded by water that stretches as far as the eye can see. But these waters shouldn’t be here, and beneath their stagnant surface lay the remains of homes and lives swept away by unprecedented monsoon rains. For those left behind, these floodwaters are filled with unseen dangers – snakes, waterborne diseases – that are posing yet another threat to families who have lost almost everything.

Nazira’s is one of these families.

“It was night when we heard the loudspeaker at the mosque. Someone said that the waters were rising and coming towards us,” says Nazira’s husband, Hassan Khan. “We ran for our lives. We couldn’t take anything with us.” It’s a familiar situation for many of the more than 7 million people in Pakistan who have been displaced by the floods, a tragic story I hear over and over as I meet with families.

Nazira and Hassan Khan are sheltering at a camp that has been set up by local officials for displaced families. Along the narrow road to the camp – one of the few slivers of dry land in the area – families have erected makeshift shelters, leaving many children to sleep on the ground just feet away from speeding cars and trucks.

Here and there in the distance, the roofs of submerged buildings hover over the surreal floodwaters, which may take months to fully recede. Water is everywhere, but none of it is safe to drink. Still, some children – driven by thirst – drink it anyway, putting them at risk of serious illness or even death.

As we arrive at the camp, some people shout out at two small boys who have entered the water to try to reach a water buffalo. A dark shape is winding its way towards them. The boys make it out of the water just before the snake can reach them.

People at the camp say they have been bitten by snakes and stray dogs. Others say they worry about scorpions and dengue, a viral disease that is transmitted by mosquitos. Mosquitoes, which flourish in these stagnant waters, are out well before nightfall, swarming around the many homeless families sheltering here without fans or bed nets to protect them.

Pakistan. Nazira and her family shelter in a tent.
Nazira and her family shelter in a tent at a camp for people displaced by floods in Balochistan, Pakistan.

For now, a single tent is home for Nazira, her husband and their three children. Nasir Ahmad, 8, is sitting on the only piece of furniture inside the family’s tent – a Charpoy, a light bed frame made of wood and strung rope. His 18-month-old brother, Shoaib, is sleeping next to him, exhausted by the unbearable humidity.

“My home was better,” Nasir Ahmad reflects. “There’s nothing to do here. Sometimes I play hide and seek with my friends who reached the camp. The rest of the time, I feel bored and sad. I miss home.”

Nazira’s youngest child, six-month-old Naqibullah, was recently diagnosed with malnutrition at a mobile health unit set up by UNICEF and the Government of Balochistan. Doctors gave Naqibullah ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), a life-saving essential supply item used to treat severe wasting in children under 5 years-old. UNICEF and partners have established dozens of mobile health units providing children with lifesaving medicines to treat acute watery diarrhoea, respiratory infections and skin conditions as well as the type of therapeutic food supplement given to Naqibullah.

Pakistan. UNICEF Pakistan chief of communications Catherine Wiebel
UNICEF Chief of Advocacy and Communication in Pakistan Catherine Weibel speaks with Nazira at a mobile health unit.

But even before the floods, more than 50 per cent of children living in the area were stunted, says Sheraz Ali, a UNICEF nutrition officer, referring to a condition caused by chronic undernutrition that can cause irreversible damage to children’s brains and bodies. Now, as the floodwaters slowly recede, a second wave of the flooding catastrophe is unfolding with the spread of water-borne diseases and as families struggle to find sufficient safe water.

“Now these frail infants are also suffering from severe acute malnutrition, diarrhoea and malaria. Most of their mothers are malnourished, too,” Ali says.

Nazira says that Naqibullah is doing better but adds that she still worries about him. She has talked with other mothers whose children have seemed to be recovering, only to fall ill again. Ensuring the health of these displaced children, suffering the effects of a climate-induced crisis for which they bear no responsibility, will require many more resources and supplies.

“All I want now is a place to live, and food, and medicine for my children,” Nazira says.


Catherine Weibel is Chief of Advocacy & Communication, UNICEF Pakistan


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