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Fishermen offer a lifeline to Pakistan's flooded villages

A traditional Pakistani fishing boat, or kashti, laden with passengers, traverses a flooded lake in the southern district of Dado.
Diaa Hadid/NPR
A traditional Pakistani fishing boat, or kashti, laden with passengers, traverses a flooded lake in the southern district of Dado.

Updated November 3, 2022 at 3:24 PM ET

DADO, Pakistan – On a recent morning, a woman in a black robe and face veil picked through muddy water and clambered into the hull of a small traditional fishing vessel decorated with bright geometric shapes and woodcarvings. A teenage girl followed, hauling bulging shopping bags. A few men crammed onto the bow and stern while a barefoot fisherman pushed the boat away from land with a shout.

This impromptu ferry service — which launches from a spot where a highway abruptly plunges into water — is one of the only ways for travelers in the Dado region of southern Pakistan to reach nearby villages, which recent floods transformed into islands. Unprecedented monsoon rains this summer left a third of Pakistan under water, and Dado was one of the hardest-hit areas. Even weeks after the rains subsided, the lake they left behind still stretched for miles over submerged homes and swaths of farmland. With climate change making such extreme weather more likely, boat services such as this may well be part of a playbook of how Pakistanis will manage future floods.

It started in late August with emergency rescues from the floods, said 17-year-old fisherman Noor Hussain, who works alongside his brother manning one of the boats, known as kashti. "So many people had been left stranded," he said. "People were saying, 'If you have boats, then bring them and rescue us.' They even offered us money."

From that chaotic situation, local fishermen quickly established a boat bus service of sorts. There's a route of established stops — some two or three dozen — but no set schedule. Boats only move once fishermen have packed them with passengers. It's unclear how many of the hundreds of thousands of residents in the area have taken boat rides, but they're a lifeline for those who can afford it and a godsend for fishermen who face diminishing stocks in the stressed and polluted waterways of southern Pakistan. Hussain said he left his studies for this work. At $1.30 a passenger, six passengers a ride, he and his brother make a profit of about $25 a day.

He revved up the outboard motor rigged to his kashti and puttered past submerged villages, now identifiable only by mosque domes and treetops. To navigate the lake waters that stretch as far as the eye can see, he uses the powerlines that marked the route of the now-underwater highway. He tries to follow them as much as possible to keep off people's lands underneath the water.

Land owners, he explained, are sensitive about boats on their flooded property. "They tell us, 'It does not belong to you, this is our land,' " he said with a laugh and a shrug. He gestured to a small school of fish near his boat. "We aren't even allowed to fish here," he added. "They say, 'The fish are on our land.' "

He briefly cut the motor so his brother could pick out garbage tangled in the propeller. As they neared a partially submerged village called Gozo, a handful of people crowded by the stop on the muddy shore hoping for food aid. There was none.

Aboard another boat was Hanifa Lund, who was heading to Johi, one of the biggest towns in the flood lake with a population of 200,000. She was returning home from what is now the mainland with her youngest boy, seven-year-old Haji.

"He had malaria. It's the heat and flood waters," she lamented. "It's making us all sick."

To make matters worse, food is hard for her to come by. Lund said she had borrowed money to feed her family bread and black tea.

Lund's home was washed away in the floods, and they were bunking with her mother in a one-bedroom slum in Johi. "We might have to shelter under a tree," fretted Lund. "My mother is a poor woman, she can't keep hosting us." Out of desperation, Lund said she and other homeless residents even held a noisy demonstration outside a government office in the regional town of Dado, for which this district is named. "We marched and shouted but got nothing," she said.

When they arrived in Johi, the fisherman steering the boat jostled for space in a busy jetty carved out of the submerged garden of a local college.

With an enormous grunt, porter Ali Asghar wrestled a 50-pound sack of potatoes from a pile packed into the hull of a small boat. His feet wobbled in the mud, and fishermen held him still as they shouted encouragement. The potato sack on his shoulders, he staggered to a nearby donkey cart and threw it down with a thump. Working swiftly, the 28-year-old said he could do three boatloads a day, for about $1.50 a haul, better money than he was making as a donkey cart driver transporting vegetables to market.

A man herds his buffalos through an alley submerged in water in the village of Gozo.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
Diaa Hadid/NPR
A man herds his buffalos through an alley submerged in water in the village of Gozo.

A family arrived at the Johi jetty by motorbike, and climbed into a waiting boat. The women and children squeezed into the hull beside their motorbike. "It's all we have," remarked one of the women, Zinat, who only has one name. "The floods took our home, my cows, my buffalo, my goats."

They were heading to town to find a doctor for Zinat's daughter, Benazir, who snuggled under her scarf. She was sick with fever and diarrhea. Zinat said she knew clinics were overcrowded and medicines were hard to find, but she was desperate. She borrowed money from her mother to get on this boat.

By the time the family reached the mainland about 40 minutes later, Zinat herself was overcome by the blazing heat and her husband helped her off the boat.

It was dusk. The jetty road was lined with tents of people made homeless by the floods. Women built small fires on the asphalt to make dinner. Goats and cows were tethered to the highway railing. Children ran about.

One of the fishermen, Zakariya Mallah, 52, dropped off his final lot of passengers for the day. He was preparing to head home, by boat, and he said he wanted to make it before nightfall because the flood waters were precarious, with so much life lying under the surface.

Soon, he said, the waters would recede. He will return to fishing in a nearby lake, now refreshed with monsoonal rains. But, as for his passengers who have lost so much, it's not clear where they will go or how they will get there.

Remains of a flood-destroyed village.
/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
Diaa Hadid/NPR
Remains of a flood-destroyed village.

Additional reporting by Hanif Imam in Dado, Pakistan

Copyright 2023 WKU Public Radio. To see more, visit WKU Public Radio.

Diaa Hadid
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.
Abdul Sattar