‘Saving lives was the priority’
Scott Whoolery, Chief of Field Operations and Emergency, UNICEF Pakistan, shares how UNICEF responded to unprecedented floods which pushed millions of families to the brink
One year since devastating floods hit Pakistan, UNICEF continues to respond to the immediate needs of vulnerable children and families in the hardest-hit districts. At peak impact, the floods affected 33 million people and over 20 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance, half of whom were children.
One-third of the country was underwater, roads and bridges were wiped out, entire villages were completely cut off. Scott Whoolery, the Chief of Field Operations and Emergency, UNICEF Pakistan, explains how UNICEF carried out emergency operations under the most challenging circumstances.
Q: What was your reaction to the scale of last year’s floods in Pakistan?
We knew that last year’s monsoon could be strong. We had pre-positioned critical supplies and emergency preparedness plans were in place. But ultimately the sheer amount of rain that fell, the way the flooding unfolded, and the scale of devastation was shocking. It was difficult to wrap my head around how much of the country was underwater and how many people were affected. We realized that something extraordinary was happening and then the government-led emergency response kicked in. The scale was shocking to everybody. It should serve as a warning about climate change, not just to Pakistan but to the entire world.
Q: With so many people affected, how did you prioritize during the early stages of the emergency response?
Simple, saving lives. We knew that people and entire villages were completely cut off by floodwaters. They had no access to essential services. We prioritized health, nutrition and WASH for these areas. Our priority was to find these populations which had been hardest hit. We used boats when road access was cut off but we couldn't reach everywhere because the conditions made it impossible. We worked with the government and other UN partners to prioritize and reach the most vulnerable but the biggest challenge was the scope of the needs. There were huge numbers of people who were unreached. Sometimes it's not the money. It's simply the supplies, the logistics and the time it takes to reach people. Without a doubt, our focus was on saving lives and our interventions made a key difference, particularly in the earliest weeks of the flood response.
Q: How were the children's needs different from adults in the flood emergency? How did UNICEF support?
Children face some unique challenges in emergencies, particularly the youngest. Children are more susceptible to malnutrition and diseases as their immune systems are not fully developed. Parents had a very hard time meeting the basic needs of their children during the floods. They lost everything - their homes, possessions and livelihoods virtually overnight – and had limited access to food and safe water. The psychological impact of a disaster like this is hard to imagine. UNICEF played a valuable role re-establishing essential services, treating children for malnutrition, providing safe drinking water, vaccinating against childhood diseases and ensuring temporary learning centres and safe spaces where children could learn and play, and receive counselling and support. These protection and education services were absolutely essential. They were the only place for children to get that respite, to be with their friends, to socialize.
Q: What were you most proud of during the emergency response?
I'm most proud of the UNICEF team. The staff demonstrated the dedication, commitment and passion needed to serve flood-affected communities under the most difficult circumstances. We had to mobilize so much, so fast, as a key partner of the government. We played multiple roles in coordination and partnerships and really tried to make sure that those in greatest need received essential supplies and services. That required a strong and dedicated team, and that's what we had. It was amazing. No matter how you felt at the end of the day, you knew that there was a whole team behind you, giving it their all every day to make sure that the flood-affected children and families could get what they needed. For me, I’m incredibly proud of the whole UNICEF team, including our implementing partners and government counterparts that we worked so closely with throughout.
Q: With last year's flood response continuing and this year's monsoon in full force, is UNICEF prepared for another emergency?
I would like to say yes, but as last year proved, we simply don’t know what exactly will happen. We've made lots of preparedness efforts, we’ve doubled our contingency stock from last year and updated our emergency response plans. We're in continuous dialogue with the government. We've held capacity building at provincial and district levels to ensure that we have the knowledge, skills, supplies and human resources needed to respond.
Unfortunately, flood reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts have not moved as fast as the emergency response, so there are still many people living in extremely vulnerable situations. We're tracking these populations and we are ready to respond. This year, Pakistan has experienced localized heavy rains and flooding to which the government is responding and in many of the areas we're already supporting. So, I would say yes, we are prepared, and I hope that the country as a whole is also much more prepared with the lessons and experience we gained from last year’s response.
Q: When it comes to climate change, what's your biggest concern for children in Pakistan and what's your biggest hope?
My biggest concern for the children in Pakistan is that the climate change will have a severe impact on their lives, on their ability to stay healthy, to have good nutrition, to attend school and have opportunities to prosper in life. I also worry about how often children are going to face major disruptions due to climatic events. It's unfair that any child has to go through this when they’ve contributed zero to this global problem.
My big hope is that the world can come together to find solutions to climate change, and we can avoid the very worst impact for children in Pakistan and children everywhere. They deserve all the same opportunities we had growing up to learn, develop and live in a healthy and safe environment. We need to support children to help them understand this phenomenon and empower them as we look for solutions. We have no more time to waste, we need to act quickly to protect the lives of the most vulnerable children in Pakistan before it’s too late.