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Plan Canada’s Dr. Tanjina Mirza offers perspective on the Pakistan Floods from varied points of view

August 25, 2010 – Plan Canada’s VP of International Programs Dr Tanjina Mirza has both lived and worked in Pakistan. A medical doctor trained in maternal child health with over twenty years of work in international development, Tanjina is Plan Canada’s resident expert in child and maternal health, waterborne diseases, nutrition, and poverty reduction.

With this in mind, we sat down with Dr. Mirza for some questions and answers about the recent Pakistan floods.

Plan Canada’s Dr. Tanjina Mirza

Dr. Tanjina Mirza

You have spent a lot of time in Pakistan – can you tell us a bit about your experience?

My family is Bangladeshi, but we spent much of my childhood in Pakistan. I grew up and went to school there and to this day have very warm memories of my childhood home. I think for many Canadians who have never been to Pakistan there is an association with the political challenges that the country and its people have faced over the years, but for me, Pakistan is a beautiful country with exceptionally warm people and many friends.

A few years ago, I returned to Pakistan after an earthquake while working for Plan. I had the chance to work very closely with some exceptional colleagues at Plan Pakistan and to see first hand the resilience and fortitude of the people who were determined to get through that crisis and rebuild their lives and communities. It’s heartbreaking to think of what the children and families of Pakistan are going through right now, but we’re doing everything we can at Plan Canada to engage Canadians in the massive global effort to get assistance to children and families to get them through this unprecedented disaster.

Can you give some insight as to the regions affected by the flood? What were they like prior to the flood?

First of all, the area affected by the floods is enormous – at least one-fifth of the country. The flooding started in the Northwest Frontier Province; then moved through the Punjab, Sindh, and Baluchistan. The Punjab is a heavily populated area along the Indus River and quite rich in agricultural land. It has been the food basket region for Pakistan and a major part of the economy contributing livestock and crops, like fruit, wheat, cotton, dairy and so forth. Much of these crops and livestock were wiped out completely and the long-term social and economic impact is going to be enormous for the country and the millions of people affected.

Can you talk a bit about how flooding is different from other types of disasters in scope and impact? Short term? Long term?

When you have a disaster like an earthquake, the impact can be terrible, but it is immediate. Almost instantly you have an idea of what you are dealing with, and even if infrastructure and homes are affected, livestock survive and crops can still grow. With flooding, the devastation creeps along slowly compounding itself as it goes, and it wipes out everything in its path. As a farmer, I might be returning to nothing – my entire livelihood may have been wiped out. Many people in the affected areas have homes made from mud bricks, which are simply dissolved by floodwater. So many, many people will have literally lost everything but the clothes on their backs. The other consideration is disease. Flooding creates ideal conditions for diseases to flourish, and children are always the hardest hit. When floods recede, everything is water logged, but there are tremendous challenges in getting access to safe drinking water that has not been contaminated, so that is a major concern in a flooding situation.

How is Plan helping?

Plan has been on the ground in Pakistan since 1997. Currently, we are focused on relief activities in the Punjab and Sindh regions - providing dry rations, cooked meals, children’s food packs and health and hygiene kits. The recovery from this event will take many years. As we have been all along, Plan will continue to work within communities, with the vast majority of Plan workers being local to the region they are in. This means we are there for the long haul. Not only to recover from the floods, but to continue to assist beyond that with schools, medical assistance, micro-financing and other social and humanitarian efforts.

These are tough times financially for a lot of Canadians, but often they do not realize that even modest contributions can make great impact in the lives of the world’s poor. Can you give an example of this?

What we consider tough times here in Canada is still very, very well-off compared to the communities Plan works in. Even very little can go along way. Five dollars could literally be enough to save someone’s life. Water purification tablets are cheap – an entire community could be saved the heartache of disease and death from water-borne disease for fifty or one hundred dollars. I don’t think many Canadians know this, but a little goes a very long way to save the lives of children and families affected by these floods.

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