UN warns Ebola could infect 10,000 people per week—unless we act now

Tired and soaked: delivering aid in Upper Swat

By Elizabeth Stevens
In the wake of the floods, a rickety wooden bridge is often the only means of crossing a river. Photo: Qasim Berech.

"People need water. They drink from the river, but the river water isn't clean, and we're worried about outbreaks of disease."  — Qasim Berech

 

On August 16, Oxfam's Qasim Berech set out from the city of Mangora in Lower Swat with a team of five people and 100,000 packets of water-purification powder. Their destination—the city of Bahrain—had been cut off from aid for two and a half weeks, so there was no time to lose.

The water-purification powder he and the team are distributing in Upper Swat is a high-tech substance that in less than half an hour can remove dirt, pollutants, bacteria, and viruses from a big bucket of water. But the method of delivering it is distinctly low-tech: walking, with a few short rides along the way.

At 9:00 AM, they headed off in a van, but after an hour and a half came to the end of the road—literally. Faced with washed-out bridges and roads, they had to unload their cargo, hire local men to help them carry it, and set out on foot—in the rain.

When the roads improved, they hired a car again; when they hit another collapsed bridge, they shouldered the cartons and began walking—over and over throughout the day.

"We're not alone in our travels," wrote Berech. "We stop and ask some men that we pass where they're from. Most have come from remote parts of the Upper Swat and have walked for at least a day. They're heading for Fatehpur to collect food being handed out by the aid agencies. For most of these people, this will be the only food they will have had for days. They're hunched over and carrying sacks of wheat flour, oil, rice, pulses, sugar, salt, and biscuits on their backs—enough to keep their families going for a week or more. There are women, too, collecting water from the river for their families. They know they shouldn't drink it. It will make their children ill, but they have no choice."

It rained throughout the day, and the steep climbs became slick with mud.

"It's difficult to keep your footing in this kind of mud. Everyone is struggling, but no one complains," he wrote. "There are frightening moments, too. Because many bridges have been completely swept away, locals have done the best they can with whatever is to hand. We cross several bridges that are just pieces of wood held together with rope. They’re pretty dangerous. I cross holding on tightly as the bridge shakes from side to side."

The team finally reached Bahrain at 4:00 PM.

"We're all tired and soaked but we know it was worth it. We manage to distribute powder sachets to nearly 3,000 households. At 30 sachets per family, that will give them clean water for 15 days." He added, " We will go back again as many times as we need to."