After 2010 monsoon rains and flash floods swallowed a large part of Pakistan in an inland sea, aid worker Andre Ullal found new challenges, dedicated staff and the incredible capacity of people to weather the storm.
Andre Ullal is thrown into confronted with new situations with his work every day. And he loves it.
"Every day is a new challenge thrown in your face," says Andre of his work as a monitoring and evaluation aid worker with Red Cross. "I enjoy the breadth of skills on a personal and professional level. I'm much better at dealing with that kind of situation than I am at working in a fairly rigid profession in Melbourne."
Andre, an architect by trade, has worked throughout Asia, most recently in response to the 2010 Pakistan monsoon floods. Monsoonal rains caused flash floods that killed nearly 2000 people and devastated many thousands of homes and livelihoods as land was swallowed by some of the most ferocious floods the world has seen.
"The floods washed away everything I have, my house and my car," says Ihsanullah, one of the 20 million people who were affected by the floods. "We have nothing but my family is safe."
Andre's job in Pakistan was to talk to people affected by the floods like Ihsanullah, Red Cross and Red Crescent staff members and volunteers so that he could evaluate an emergency shelter project implemented by the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in Pakistan. His job was to measure how people were using the materials and to look at how assistance could be improved in the future.
"When I spoke to people I got a feeling for the extent of the damage created and the sheer force of the water," says Andre. "I think the real horror for some of these families comes now when they move back to their land and find everything is lost."
"People rely on their land for their livelihoods. Their land's been lost. Their houses have been lost. Their animals have been lost. So I think the real problems are going to start now for some of these people."
"The Red Crescent (Red Cross in Pakistan) people came and supported us," explains Ihsanullah. "Red Crescent provided us with food and shelter materials, corrugated iron sheets and wooden poles, a tool kit, nails and ropes. We also got tarpaulins in the package. We used some of the shelter materials after the floods and I can use some to build our home."
"Although tens of thousands of tents (and shelter kits) were distributed, social structure's quite strong and -- the environment, the climate, is quite harsh … so people almost invariably went to live with relatives in the area," Andre says.
"The shelter materials have given people a starting block to rebuild their houses after winter," says Andre, who was impressed with how local staff were implementing the project. He worked with these teams to enable them to assess their own work in the future. Andre also found that the generosity and compassion shown amongst families, neighbours and strangers enabled people to overcome almost insurmountable odds.
"Some of the people who I spoke with, described situations where they had 50 people living in three room houses." Andre adds that many of these families were supplementing that shelter with the tents and shelter materials for sleeping quarters and areas that personal possessions could be stored safely.
Local knowledge around being prepared impressed Andre, however, he says "there was acknowledgement that the ferocity of these floods in a lot of areas, you couldn't prepare for. There were boulders three metres in diametre -- I couldn't tell you how many tons they must weigh -- that I had seen just washed down the river, like they were pebbles."
"I think a lot of people acknowledged that preparation for this sort of thing more has to do with stockpiling food, and being ready to pick up and move, if the flood waters start rising, or the rains start coming down …rather than being able to build your house to withstand that sort of a force."
Andre points out that even though many of the villagers are aware of the dangers and the need to be prepared, "unfortunately, there are a lot of people rebuilding down on riverbanks again, largely because they're forced to."
"Land is expensive. You're never going to be able to afford to move somewhere, if you're relying on the land for your livelihood. You're forced to move back to the same place."
"I found impressive the extent to which family members were able to rely on the people around them," Andre says. "Families would trudge for two days to get to their uncle's house and their uncle would open the door and take all of his belongings out of his house so he could bring these people in to stay for two or three months. They have an incredible capacity to weather the storm."
Photos: Andre Ullal (left) and Mahnoor Khan from Pakistan Red Crescent monitor and evaluate a shelter project; TBA; Shelter materials are stored for distribution for people in Kandia valley, Pakistan. (Australian Red Cross / Ade Sonyville).