Bob Handby is familiar with devastation. In his 25 years with Red Cross he's travelled to some of the world's most tragic disaster and conflict zones. What he saw in Pakistan in the wake of the 2010 monsoon floods was a new level of destruction.
Bob Handby has over 25 years experience with Red Cross in Australia and internationally. He's assisted communities with water and sanitation needs in the wake of the some of the world's biggest disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar (Burma), and conflict zones like Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq and Sri Lanka.
Now semi-retired, Bob works part-time at Australian Red Cross in the International Emergencies department. Often with just a few hours notice, he flies into some of the world's most tragic disaster and conflict zones. In August 2010, Bob flew to Pakistan to join the Red Cross field assessment and coordination team (FACT).
What did you do in Pakistan?
I was one of the first Red Cross workers into Pakistan and spent two weeks there assisting the Pakistan Red Crescent Society to assess water and sanitation needs. The field assessment and coordination team (FACT) worked with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society to determine the immediate and future needs of the people affected by the floods.
What were your first impressions?
I knew the floods were bad, but I didn't expect the level of devastation I encountered. I was taken aback by the floods' sheer intensity.
Not only had the water flooded places to a couple of metres, but the speed and power had washed whole homes away. Built from clay and home-made bricks, most homes didn't stand a chance. Only piles of mud remained in the middle of villages and towns.
More people died in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, but the devastation of people's property and assets in Pakistan was massive. I've been to some of the world's worst disasters, but Pakistan was the biggest I have seen in this respect. Millions of people lost everything.
What was the impact of the floods on communities?
Sadly, the impact was simple to assess. People lost everything, so they needed everything.
Many were displaced and living alongside roads, in camps, around mosques and school yards. Their immediate needs were the basic essentials necessary to sustain life: food, water, shelter and access to medical care.
People then needed to return to their villages and start rebuilding their lives. Families needed to get back on to their property, to clear their land and begin farming activities again, but with no home to go back to, and no water and food, this was a huge challenge.
The assets people lost took them decades to accumulate. People I spoke to earn just 300 rupees (A$5-6) a day. They haven't had work for 10 days due to flood damage, and there's no prospect of work in the near future. At a time when they were trying to rebuild their lives, they didn't have an income.
How are people coping?
The psychological impact of a disaster like this is not immediately evident. People were hopeful and smiling when they saw we were from Red Cross, but it had obviously affected them physically and psychologically. People were clearly traumatised.
Is Red Cross making a difference in Pakistan?
Pakistan Red Crescent volunteers and staff were out in the affected communities distributing relief. They were locals familiar with the area, had the right local connections and were clearly making an impact.
Our team assessed what Red Cross needed to bring in to continue that operation. Stock needed to come from within Pakistan, or be brought in from warehouses outside the country, so that relief distribution could continue for some months.
It was challenging, but we got relief to the families - they didn't have much to begin with and now have nothing. It's these people we wanted to help return to their homes and give the best chance to rebuild their lives.
Make a donation to support the work of our Emergency Services staff and volunteers as they prepare, respond and provide relief to individuals, households and communities during disasters.
Photo: Matt Wade/Fairfax Media Syndication