x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A UAE helicopter provides aid and perspective

The UAE military sent three Chinook helicopters to Pakistan to deliver much needed humanitarian aid on August 9. The Chinooks have been continuously running relief missions in the region.

The UAE military sent three Chinook helicopters to Pakistan to deliver much needed humanitarian aid on August 9. The Chinooks and their crews have been continuously running relief missions in the region, delivering aid to thousands of the affected millions. I was able to accompany the UAE military on one of its relief missions and witness the devastation first hand, as part of a media attaché on a trip to the flooded regions of Punjab in north-western Pakistan.

Since their arrival in Pakistan, the UAE servicemen have been running sorties from sun-up to sundown. Their scuffed boots, and worn gloves are a testament to the expertise and professionalism with which they execute their duties. Before they make their deliveries, the UAE servicemen load and secure 12,000 kilogrammes of relief aid within each helicopter. And throughout it all, it is astonishing that the majority of the aircrew were fasting for Ramadan - something that their incredible focus and energy belied.

As the helicopter flew above Pakistan, I caught my first glimpse of the flooded plains but could only begin to understand the sufferings of those who had once lived below. Roads vanish into water. Many homes are completely swallowed by it. Only the tips of trees manage to stay dry. The flood waters stretch into the horizon as far as the eye can see. The floods currently cover an area larger than Great Britain and have affected the lives of 20 million people. That is considerably more than double the population of the UAE. Millions of people have had their homes destroyed. More are isolated and in dire need of nonperishable food and clean drinking water.

Water borne disease such as diarrhoea, acute respiratory illness and malaria are spreading through contaminated water that 3.5 million Pakistanis are forced to drink for the lack of any safe drinking water. While on our way to the aid delivery outpost at the town of Retra, located south of the Punjab region, I couldn't help but notice that I didn't see any other rescue helicopters. Neither in the skies nor on the ground was there any sign of relief workers or their efforts. From reading the newspapers, we know that there are organisations out there trying their best to ease the situation. But efforts are scattered across the country. They are truly just a drop in what has become an ocean of floodwater.

As we reached our destination, we could see a camp of 3,000 displaced families languishing near the landing site. Huge crowds of flood victims gathered, eager to get hold of any aid being handed out. One particular child, who walked by with bloody bandages covering his face, in desperate need of replacing, stands out in my mind, but it is difficult to put a face on so many individual tragedies. The number of people affected by the floods is more than the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake and the Haiti earthquake combined. And yet the response from the international community has been painfully slow in comparison to those disasters. Perhaps that is why the flood victims were so eager to tell their stories and get the word of their suffering out when we arrived.

From women who gave birth under makeshift tents with no medical assistance or sanitised equipment, to the growing threat of malaria as mosquitoes begin to infest camps, the needs of the flood victims are dire and immediate. The dangerous mix of helplessness and frustration will only fester. More than half of Pakistan's population is dependent on farming. With agricultural land covered in water and the country in a state of crisis, it is almost certain that the farmers will miss this planting season, adding further to the calamity.

Perhaps that is what must be remembered first: the flood isn't a disaster that is going to just recede over night. The infrastructure in the vast affected area has collapsed and the country's economic situation only worsens. People are unable to provide for themselves and will be unable to do so for an extended period of time. Things are likely to get much worse before they get any better. To contend with the scale of this tragedy, we must ask ourselves how we would feel if we were unable to return to our homes. What would it mean if we were unable to provide for ourselves or families or not able to drink water without asking if it might kill us in the next few days?

How would it feel to lose all that you cherish, and then endure suffering with no end in sight? You too would have reason to question the commitment of the global community. As we flew back to the airbase, I looked out of the helicopter's back hatch and saw the flooded plains of Pakistan. From such a height, people appear no different from you and I. On islands of dry land, battling against the sweltering heat, disease and hunger, they desperately waved to get our attention. My heart broke as we flew away, having no more aid left to give them. They would have to wait.

The world can't wait. It must respond to their call. Khaled Al Falasi is a communications professional based in Abu Dhabi