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Flood-affected Indus River boat people seek a more stable way of life

© UNHCR/Q.Afridi

Last year's devastating Pakistani floods exacerbated the parlous situation of the small Jam community of about 1,000 people in southern Punjab province who have spent decades living in riverboats on the Indus, surviving through fishing and agriculture, but without access Pakistan government support programmes. The floods, along with a growing population and industrial growth along the river, have forced the Jam to seek ways of adapting their way of life.

"It was very hard spending chilly winter nights on the boat, Getting a home to start a normal life is a dream for people like us, who were born and grew up on the boats," said white-bearded Dilbar, aged, 55. His ailing 50-year-old wife Sakina told UNHCR visitors that they drink river water and “have no proper shelter, no livelihood opportunities, no health facilities, no lavatories, no education, no burial grounds, no mosque and no identity.”

The floods nine years ago and last year made the Jam start to reassess their peripatetic way of life; they want more stability and assistance for themselves and their children. After the first floods, they began to divide their time between their boats and simple dwellings on the riverbank.

When the floodwaters hit Dera Ghazi Khan last August, these makeshift homes were destroyed and much of their grain and belongings swept away. Some of their boats were also damaged, but the Jam still used their vessels to help in initial rescue and relief efforts. "While we were busy saving others, our own huts and belongings were swallowed by the flood waters and our women and children took refuge on higher ground to save their lives," Dilbar recalled. He claimed they had never been paid for their help nor given compensation for the damage to their boats.

The Jam have rebuilt some of their simple riverbank homes, but their needs remain significant and include access to safe drinking water, health and sanitation facilities, food, livelihood opportunities and schooling for the children.

UNHCR Punjab Field Coordinator Tehmina Rohi said that while the flooding had caused enormous destruction, it had also brought the Jam’s plight to the attention of the authorities. Unable to gain access to the government aid programme for flood victims for lack of documentation, the Jam have struggled to recover. When UNHCR heard about their need, we distributed winter aid, including blankets, shawls, and hygiene kits for each family. UNHCR is also carrying out advocacy for the protection of their rights with the government and other UN agencies and hopes to help them formally register as Pakistani citizens so that they can gain access to their basic legal, social, economic, civil and political rights and benefit from government support programmes for flood victims.