Amid Crocodiles, a Family's Fight to Survive

09/11/2011 15:25 GMT | Updated 09/01/2012 10:12 GMT

"Crocodiles are everywhere; you can hear them groaning at night," says Lalbagh, 29, as he holds tightly to the flimsy motorboat cutting through the water towards an island in the distance, past scattered tree tops and cotton plants popping up out of the water.

It feels like we're crossing a lake, but it's really cotton and rice fields submerged in 18 feet of water following torrential monsoon rains that hit Lower Sindh in southern Pakistan last August. The rains have affected more than 5 million people who are now struggling to survive.

Lalbagh sits next to sacks of wheat flour and rice, and containers of vegetable oil, salt, beans and high-nutrition biscuits meant to feed a family for a month. He collected them from a nearby distribution centre recently set up by Save the Children. It was the first aid he had received since the rains struck.

A few minutes later, we finally arrive at the island where his village now stands - a collection of miserable, crumbling mud huts where a dozen families live. As we sit down outside his destroyed home, Lalbagh explains how one day it started raining and never stopped.

"It was dark and the water surrounded the village in a few hours," he says while wiping the sweat from his forehead. It is scorching hot and the air stinks because of stagnant water. "We fled outside just before the roof collapsed. All our belongings were washed away; we have nothing left."

"Our three-month-old daughter died of dehydration and diarrhoea a few days later," he continues. "We couldn't her get across the water to a hospital. I'll regret this for the rest of my life." Now his family consists of those standing next to him: his wife, Sabhal, 26, and their remaining child, Nazia. Until now, they had been living mostly off dried biscuits, tea and bread, drinking contaminated water straight from the lake.

More than 3 million people in Sindh are in urgent need of food and medical care, according to the United Nations. But the international response has been sluggish. Only 22% of the targeted $357 million Pakistan Flood Response appeal has been received.

Desperate for food, Lalbagh and other men from this village deep in Sanghar district, one of the worse hit by the floods, sometimes venture out early in the morning on foot to the mainland about two miles away. They wade through the water in groups of four or five to scare away the crocodiles. With no access to boats, they struggle to cross the newly-formed lake by trying to follow the path of the elevated roads which, unlike the surrounding fields, are three to four feet underwater.

They search for casual jobs in the nearby market towns to make a few rupees. If they're lucky and find work, they use the money to buy some wheat and rice and the occasional water container that they then drag back home on their shoulders late at night.

But the money is not nearly enough. Many children in the village are severely malnourished and some - like Lalbagh's daughter - have already died.

"Look at her," says his wife Sabhal, holding Nazia. "She's four years old but looks just one-and-a-half. When she eats, her stomach becomes very bloated; she has fever and barely touches food anymore."

Lalbagh and countless other small farmers in the region do not expect to return to their damaged fields until a year from now when the waters completely recede and the land recovers from the accumulated salt. He used to make 55 rupees (60 cents) a day cultivating cotton and rice, and owes 50,000 rupees ($575) to the landlord; he has no hope to pay back.

"We're trapped. This is the land of our ancestors, but there's no future for us here now. I pray to God every night that my family and I will survive."

Context information:

Save the Children is providing assistance to thousands of other families in the region. As of today, the charity has reached over 620,000 people through emergency medical care, distribution of food, shelter, hygiene items, household kits and water purification tablets among others, as well a through child protection, education and nutrition interventions.

Save the Children has launched a $30 million flood response strategy for Lower Sindh. Through an integrated approach, Save the Children aims to provide holistic support to 1 million people, including 600,000 children.

Save the Children is concentrating its response in four of the worst hit districts: Badin, Mirpur Khas, Sanghar and Tando Allahyar.