An oarsman navigates his inner-tube boat across the raging Swat River in northwest Pakistan. The bridge that once traversed the river was destroyed by the floods.
An oarsman navigates his inner-tube boat across the raging Swat River in northwest Pakistan. The bridge that once traversed the river was destroyed by the floods. Susannah George/NPR
Over the past three weeks, a taxi service has developed on the banks of the Swat River in Pakistan. Inner-tube boats steered by oarsmen carry medicine, food and people between the banks. The bridge that straddled this portion of the river was taken out by the monsoon-triggered floods that ripped through the Swat Valley five weeks ago. Without the bridge, the upper bank is cut off, and thus an impromptu taxi service flourishes.
The journey by the jute rope and inner-tube boats takes all but three minutes, but the swirling current makes the water treacherous and creates the sensation of white-water river rafting. Passengers slip on life jackets as they board. Fifty people already have died trying to cross this stretch.
Swat Valley, in Pakistan's northwest corner, has suffered debilitating setbacks: a Taliban insurgency, and a military offensive to oust it. Now it is struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of the country's worst floods.
More than 100 bridges were destroyed across Swat Valley, making transport by land difficult to impossible. In this land of mountain streams, rickety rafts and community-built cable cars — one powered by a car motor — are often the only means to connect cut-off populations.
An Accumulation Of Miseries
The floods have changed not only the mode of transport along the river, but they also have utterly changed the landscape itself. Before the floods, rice paddies swayed by the river's edge. Now the banks resemble a New England coastline: Boulders and rocks carried from the mountains above Swat lay deposited on white-beige sand.
The "clearing [of sand and rocks] will take years," says Said Rehman, a rice farmer who lost fields in three different places along the river. Now he works as a driver. He says he can replant only if the dykes are rebuilt, but he doesn't expect that to happen "for a very long time."
Twenty-five percent of Swat's rich croplands are lost. Five weeks into the disaster — and with no government official in sight — farmers say their faith in the government's promise to compensate for damages is evaporating. Swat has yet to see unrest, however, and residents say the army would put down any public protest. Instead, the people of Swat commiserate among themselves.
"We guys sit in the evening, share our grievances, vent out our frustrations and talk to each other," says one farmer.
"[Sometimes] we hit our kids when they make even the slightly mistake to vent our frustration," another man jokes.
Yet another farmer sums up the accumulation of miseries: "The last four years we suffered at the hands of the Taliban. Sometimes there [were] earthquakes; there is flood now. Sometimes [we suffered] at the hands of the military. So we are used to all these sufferings."
But not all Swatis are so sanguine about the hardships. Standing on the bank of the river, Omar Zeb says, "Whatever aid is coming here, it is channeled through the influential people of this area, like the chieftains and the maliks. They are landed gentry ... so poor people are not getting anything out of this aid. Might is right — this is the law here."
A Massive Relief Effort
Farther inland food is being distributed, but it is anything but a smooth-running operation. The United Nations says the sheer scale of the disaster — 18 million affected and a land mass half the size of Italy inundated — makes speedy, efficient delivery impossible.
Workers at the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa food distribution center lack the proper paperwork to deliver the emergency food aid that is stockpiled around them.
Workers at the Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa food distribution center lack the proper paperwork to deliver the emergency food aid that is stockpiled around them. Susannah George/NPR
But aid workers at a distribution center a two-hour drive north of the main Swat city, Mingora, blame a bloated bureaucracy.
"A document hasn't been issued and so the food cannot be released," says Faisal Mabood of the World Food Program. As a result, Abu Baker Siddique of Relief International says, his center has run out of food to give away.
Despite disorganization, the World Food Program says countrywide it has supplied nearly 3 million people with emergency food rations — half of the 6 million in need.
As families line up for a monthly supply of wheat, cooking oil and high-energy biscuits, Siddique gestures to his empty warehouse. "Look, we've finished our work at 11 o'clock, and we are still sitting over here in the hope that the food will come."