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Pakistanis save their town from floodwaters by building an embankment

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Floodwaters have been slow to recede in Pakistan. Its foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, told NPR his ancestral home is in the flood zone.

BILAWAL BHUTTO ZARDARI: We had a hundred-kilometer lake from the middle of my country that can be seen from space.

INSKEEP: Much of that lake is still there, and NPR's Diaa Hadid went out on the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT ENGINE TURNING OVER)

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Twenty-two-year-old Ikhtiar Sayyal crams his thin form into the hull of a boat that putt-putts across a lake. Just a month ago, this lake didn't exist. Now it's 70 miles wide, and a boat is the only way Sayyal can get around. The boat passes power lines that mark where the highway once ran, clusters of treetops where there were once fields. The boat skirts around submerged villages. Some have mosque domes poking out of the water. Hilly parts of Sayyal's village survived. It's called Gozo. It's now an island.

IKHTIAR SAYYAL: (Through interpreter) Only poor people are left in Gozo. Anybody with money left already.

HADID: Our boat parks at a muddy patch near a half-washed-away home.

Everyone's getting off here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

HADID: We follow Sayyal through ankle-deep water. We pass men on motorbikes navigating alleys slick with stinking sludge. We pass cows and buffaloes tethered in a dry courtyard.

SAYYAL: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Sayyal says they belong to people whose homes were washed away. He says they're taking care of them until they can return. Displaced livestock and displaced people. Sayyal points to a girls school where families are sheltering on the flat rooftop. Folks wave us up.

(Non-English language spoken).

The ground floor is underwater, so we climb the ladder fixed to the side of the building. A woman quickly sweeps the rooftop when she realizes guests are coming. It's over a hundred degrees. And one man, Mohammad Akram, invites us to sit near a fan powered by a solar panel. He rescued both from his home before floods submerged his village. It once neighbored Gozo. He tells my colleague, Abdul Sattar, that this was the closest place they could shelter.

MOHAMMAD AKRAM: (Through interpreter) But, brother, we have got nothing. He borrow cash from relatives and friends.

HADID: It's the equivalent of a dollar here, a dollar there. It doesn't stretch very far. Akram has got six kids.

AKRAM: (Through interpreter) We ate a little today, but our stomachs aren't even half full. I had some bread. My neighbor gave me a cup of yogurt.

HADID: People who've been made homeless from the floods are so scattered that an official tells us it's difficult to reach small groups of them, particularly those on these little island villages in the lake. Officials want them to go to large tent encampments, but some families fear it's not safe for their women and girls. We say goodbye and climb back down the ladder. As we're leaving, we hear about residents who saved their own town from floodwaters by building their own embankment. The town's called Johi. It's also in the same large lake, so we flagged down a boat in the jetty. We arrive in Johi and meet activist Allahvariyo Somro. Somro says weeks into monsoon season, they saw government warnings on social media that floods were coming. They snapped into action.

ALLAHVARIYO SOMRO: We used social media. We used bike. We used rickshaw.

HADID: They told clerics to use mosque loudspeakers to amplify their call. Somro repeats what they said.

SOMRO: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: My colleague Abdul Sattar translates.

SOMRO: (Through interpreter) You are informed that your city at risk, and there could be flood. So this is not the time for sitting. This is not the time for resting.

HADID: Somro says residents knew what to do because 12 years ago the area had also faced devastating floods, and they built a similar embankment to save their town. But it had since fallen into disrepair. This time around, farmers bought tractors to shift soil. Elderly men and young boys helped with sandbagging. Women broke with conservative tradition and worked alongside the men. Another activist, Javeid Rajhani, explains.

JAVEID RAJHANI: Everybody in the embankment - everybody, I tell you - from child to old men, will not give up our efforts to protect our city.

HADID: Local officials were among the residents who had fled Johi by then. But in phone calls, they authorized residents to use government machinery like big earthmovers. Within days, townsfolk had rebuilt the 4-1/2-mile embankment, and they became folk heroes of the district. When they finished, the men held a party, dancing in traditional glittery caps and tossing rose petals.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

HADID: And when the heavy rains turned to floods, the embankment protected Johi, which is now encircled by water. Rajhani again.

RAJHANI: We are in high spirits. And inshallah, God forbid, if the situation comes like this, we will protect our city again.

HADID: But the joy and pride conceals anger.

RAJHANI: There was a mismanagement, we can say, of the government.

HADID: Rajhani says the government didn't make rains more intense. He says that's climate change. But he and others maintain that the effects of these floods, which washed away so many homes and livelihoods and even created a lake, was made worse because officials didn't maintain systems that would have diverted the water. We head back to the jetty and flag down another boat to return to what is now the mainland. These boats are basically a bus service set up by fishermen. There's no other way for residents on these isolated patches in the lake to get around. But it's expensive by local standards, about $1.30 a ride. And as we disembark at a noisy jetty, one furious commuter marches up to us. Gul Ahsan Nourani says the military should be providing free transport.

GUL AHSAN NOURANI: (Through interpreter) We want the army to provide us at least free ferry service so that we could travel. We don't have anything.

HADID: Pakistani officials say these floods were so catastrophic that they were overwhelmed. They say even much wealthier countries wouldn't have been able to cope. Pakistan's government is asking the West for more debt relief and aid so they can deal with this sprawling crisis because scientists say climate change likely made these rains more intense, and Pakistan is only a minuscule global carbon emitter. Back on the boat to Gozo, the fishermen cut the motor briefly to fish out some weeds caught in the propeller. And that young man, Ikhtiar Sayyal, tells me, in Pakistan, people like him are always left behind. There's nothing for the poor here, he says. We had to save ourselves.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Gozo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.