DERA GHAZI KHAN, Pakistan, May 5 (UNHCR) – Dilbar and Sakina have spent most of their lives living in riverboats on the Indus, desperately in need of assistance but unable to access Pakistan government support programmes.
Last year's devastating floods exacerbated the parlous situation of the small Jam community of about 100 families (1,000 people) in southern Punjab province and many of them, including Dilbar and Sakina, now want to adapt their riverine way of life, construct proper homes and receive state aid to help them rebuild their lives.
"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, while smoking a hookah (waterpipe). His extended family includes four children and four grandchildren.
"We drink river water;" his ailing 50-year-old wife Sakina told UNHCR visitors. "We have no proper shelter, no livelihood opportunities, no health facilities, no lavatories, no education, no burial grounds, no mosque and no identity," she continued, listing the myriad of problems they face.
UNHCR staff have been able to provide members of the community with material assistance, including winter aid, since coming across them for the first time during relief efforts for victims of last year's floods. And now UNHCR hopes to help them formally register as Pakistani citizens and gain national ID cards 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.
The Jam have lived in Punjab's Dera Ghazi Khan district for decades. They survived through fishing, basket weaving and agriculture. In recent years, they have built shelters on the riverbank to accommodate their growing population, but they never registered. When they were doing well, there seemed no need to.
But their way of life has been threatened by two devastating floods in 10 years as well as industrial growth along the river, construction of dams, environmental degradation and restrictions on fishing, which have affected their livelihoods.
UNHCR Punjab Field Coordinator Tehmina Rohi said that while the flooding had caused enormous destruction, it had also brought the plight of people like the Jam to the attention of the authorities after years of being in the shadows.
"Forgotten communities, like these boat people, have come to the surface and they need equal care and support," she said, while adding that one of the key reasons that they lacked legal documentation – and access to basic services and relief – was because they did not have land and a defined settlement area.
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.
Unable to gain access to the government aid programme for flood victims for lack of documentation, the Jam boat people have struggled to recover. When UNHCR heard about their need, the agency early this year distributed winter aid, including quilts, blankets, shawls, sweaters and hygiene kits for each family.
The Jam, moreover, 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.
"We are fed up with this river now," Dilbar said, citing the floods and restrictions on their livelihoods. He also worries about Sakina's health and the safety of his grandchildren on their boat. With the help of UNHCR and others, he now hopes the Jam can begin a new and more settled and orthodox chapter in their life.
UNHCR is carrying out advocacy for the protection of their rights with the government and other sister UN agencies.
By Qaisar Afridi Khan in Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan