Letter From Pakistan

My travel to Pakistan, in the wake of the deluge, is sponsored by some of my architecture firm’s clients and hosted by Pakistan’s Dawood Group. I’m here to gain a sense of the issues on the ground and to learn how we might help in relief and recovery efforts.  After two days of meetings in […]

My travel to Pakistan, in the wake of the deluge, is sponsored by some of my architecture firm’s clients and hosted by Pakistan’s Dawood Group. I’m here to gain a sense of the issues on the ground and to learn how we might help in relief and recovery efforts.

 After two days of meetings in Islamabad with several organizations including the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, supporting NGOs, the National Engineering Services of Pakistan (who will be responsible for rebuilding standards and strategies), the Italian consulate, and the office of the Prime Minister responsible for organizing the national relief policy and organization, I’m prepared to travel to  the affected areas in the Sindh region, a vast, ancient alluvial plain at the confluence of nine rivers. Several weeks before I arrive here, the Sindh was experiencing heavy, seasonal monsoons. But the rising flood waters were actually the result of a much greater than normal rainfall to the north, where channels overflowed and flooded fields, grazing lands, roads, utilities, power stations, wells, schools, stores, as well as the settlements of tenant farmers and the homes of the many people who live impoverished lives close to the land.


They tell me about the days of panic and mayhem, of facing challenges that would be hard for many of us to conceive. Large extended families that traditionally live out their lives in simple rural villages, tending their small herds of precious livestock, had to race for any higher ground they could find.

Now, as I tour the Sindh, I see the tent villages that form patterns in the landscape. Slight rises and small plateaus of “available” land had become orthogonal grids of open ended cloth tents. Rail beds, berms, roadsides, dikes, and earthen dams are colonized by lines of tents.


Those who were migratory even before the flooding are now difficult to track, let alone assimilate into the aid programs. A deeply impoverished people, they have been, effectively, cast into the landscape. To say that their access to the basic necessities of sanitation, privacy, security, shelter, food, and clean water is challenging, is a gross understatement.

A small village square with mature shade trees and an iron fence has become a safe open air camp for whole displaced villages. Here people live in close proximity with the few existing facilities. Water purification straws hang on trees. Small areas are reserved for cooking with scavenged wood. A central tent is reserved for organizational discussions and for a “school” to keep the children busy.


As I talk with the displaced families, farmers, fishermen, and children I’m struck by their resilience, charity, hope and pride. Very curious about why this obviously Western visitor is here, they gather around and get involved in our conversations. They all want to tell me about how their own village was the most severely damaged or had been washed away.

The Sindh is a region that Americans rarely  travel to.The village relief organizer who helps me with translation says that I’m the very first American on the ground and surveying the damage since the water started to recede and a some of the roads became passable. All other visits had been limited to the fringe of the area, or had been a quick helicopter fly-by.

As we move through the countryside the damage is numbing. My host’s cell phone rings constantly with exhausting, well-intentioned questions that go from the sublime to the ridiculous and often  have no simple effective answer. “Who can we send money to?” “Is there a water problem?” “How can we help?” “Can we send water pumps?” “Is there infrastructure for a Japanese water pump?” “Is there electricity?”


Here in this corner of the world that is suffering so much right now, I’m struck by the accuracy of climate change predictions. I think about future generations that will experience more such extreme weather events. It seems to me that Time magazine was not doing us a favor by putting a cute polar bear on a small shard of ice surrounded by calm cool water and a painterly sky on its cover. They should have shown a picture of a child in an extreme weather event. I have seen the future of mega weather events in the Sindh.  

I think it is inevitable that the monetary aid sent to Pakistan will be inadequate to address even the basic needs. Allocating the little that is given will be a challenge. Should it be spent on shelter before the winter weather comes in, seed for crops, fodder for livestock, replacement livestock, mosquito netting, clothing, simple water storage and filtration for a village or a family or to treat outbreaks of disease? These issues are even more difficult in the context of tribal, religious, ancient, and international battles under way. 

Our firm has begun to develop strategies for housing relief and recovery that will have long-term value to families and communities. We hope to find appropriate ways to help now so that we’ll be  prepared to help those in such dire need in the future.

David Johnson, is a partner in William McDonough + Partners and the founding member of the firm’s San Francisco studio. His  portfolio includes residential architecture, planning, interiors, architectural design for a range of large-scale international urban planning projects and commercial and institutional buildings. David speaks frequently about Cradle to Cradle and architecture; most recently he keynoted the World Green Building Council’s International Congress in Singapore (September 2010).

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