By Shandana Aurangzeb Durrani
SWAT DISTRICT, Pakistan, 4 October 2010 – Water levels along the Swat River have returned to normal, but evidence of the devastation from recent floods is everywhere. Bridges, roads, schools, health facilities, water supply and sanitation systems in Swat Valley – which were already suffering from the effects of military conflict over the last two years – are severely affected.
In flooded areas of north-western Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the emergency has grown increasingly complex. Due to the pre-existing conflict in the province’s Malakand division, women and children – especially girls – were already denied access to basic health and education services. Then the flood crisis caused a breakdown of communication networks and infrastructure, making this vulnerable group harder to reach with life-saving interventions.
‘A constant struggle’
Now, however, the re-opening of schools offers a return to routine and normalcy for many children.
“I am happy that the school has re-opened,” said Zarbakhta, a mother of five children whose daughter Maria, 9, just started Grade 3 at the Islampur government primary school.
Although Zarbakhta herself never went to school, she understands the importance of educating her children, particularly her daughter. She also heads the school’s Parent-Teacher Council, or PTC. “For an illiterate mother, taking proper care of her children and family is a constant struggle,” she said.
The head teacher at the Islamapur school facilitated a recent PTC meeting about the floods’ impact on the health of women and children. Many children in the flood zone have skin infections, and as winter approaches, chest infections are also rampant, parents said.
In the classroom next door, Maria and her classmates listened to hygiene promoter Zainab Khatoon from the Human Resource Development Society (HRDS), a non-governmental organization and UNICEF partner working on water, sanitation and hygiene in Malakand.
During the hygiene sessions, Ms. Khatoon highlights the importance of sanitary practices such as handwashing with soap, using latrines properly and drinking safe water. All the girls receive with hygiene kits to promote good practices in school and at home.
Another UNICEF partner, the Environmental Protection Society, helps distribute family hygiene kits and conducts hygiene promotion sessions for men.
All of these activities build upon UNICEF-supported water, sanitation and hygiene programmes funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department, also known as ECHO, in schools located in conflict- and flood-affected areas of Malakand division.
Under the ECHO-funded early recovery effort, some 60 schools have benefitted from the distribution of 9,000 student hygiene kits; installation of 30 hand pumps; and rehabilitation of 30 water sources, 120 latrines and 120 handwashing points – among other activities. In addition, 250 teachers and 200 school caretakers have been trained in hygiene promotion.
“There is an urgent need to expand similar school-based water, sanitation and hygiene promotion activities in flood areas,” said UNICEF Pakistan’s Sabahat Ambreen. “They play a key role in controlling life-threatening diseases like cholera and diarrhoea.”
‘Welcome to School’ initiative
The PTC members at the Islamapur school also discussed the issue of construction work to repair two flood-damaged classrooms. The rooms were built to accommodate a growing number of girl students.
“Our schools don’t have space to accommodate the students,” said Assistant District Officer Fazli Ahad of the Swat Department of Education. “Classrooms are overcrowded.”
In the interim, temporary learning spaces have been set up and schools are functioning in UNICEF tents to replace facilities damaged or destroyed in the conflict or by floodwaters. A ‘Welcome to School’ initiative launched to give a boost to the dilapidated education infrastructure in Malakand has stalled in areas that were cut off by flood damage to roads.
“As areas are becoming accessible, we are starting work on priority basis in schools affected by both conflict and floods,” said HRDS Project Manager Bacha Khan.