Islamic Relief’s response to the UK floods
Our Head of Programmes, Samina Haq, describes our reaction to record-breaking floods in the UK:
Islamic Relief has extensive experience of not only providing emergency aid in the event of natural disasters, but also of helping communities to rebuild and to prepare for nature’s next onslaught. With the UK in the grip of fierce storms and extensive floods described as “relentless and unprecedented” by the Environment Agency, we naturally found ourselves asking how we might bring our experience to bear.
Our main focus is on alleviating poverty and suffering in the poorest countries, of course, and that is where it will remain. We have an extensive programme of disaster risk reduction in Bangladesh, for example, a country more vulnerable to climate-related natural disasters than any other. Building greater community resilience where extremes of climate meet extremes of poverty is a major component of our global strategy.
But Islamic Relief also has a tradition of offering practical assistance, on a smaller scale, to those affected by extremes of weather in developed nations. Sometimes we provide material aid, as we did when a huge earthquake and devastating tsunami hit Japan in 2011. More often we mobilise energetic local volunteers to help local communities out.
Islamic Relief volunteers in the United States helped with the clear-up after tornadoes ravaged the US last year. Only last week our staff and volunteers in Australia delivered 400 sleeping bags and a thousand litres of water to an evacuation centre providing a lifeline to people affected by bush fires in Victoria.
In the UK we provided bottled water in the Gloucester area in 2007 when 350,000 people had their water supplies cut off by floods. We were also ready to answer the call in recent weeks as the flood waters spread on the Somerset Levels and the Severn and Thames threatened to burst their banks. To shape our response we did what Islamic Relief always does in a crisis of this kind, carrying out a careful needs assessment to identify the most vulnerable and how best to support them.
A proper needs assessment involves not only monitoring damage and weather reports but also visiting the communities affected to see how they are coping and precisely what assistance they need. And so with Islamic Relief volunteer teams on standby at various wholesale warehouses, vans and trucks at the ready to deliver whatever help people might require, we paid visits to Sedgemoor in Somerset and to Worcester to see the situation for ourselves.
What we saw was flooding on a scale that the communities concerned have not experienced before. But we also saw local people and the authorities dealing pretty effectively with the situation.
Local authorities and community leaders were supporting those worst affected, not just with tea and sympathy but with practical assistance. The Environment Agency and local authorities deserve considerable credit for their efforts.
In Sedgemoor we visited a church that was doubling as a respite centre for families, and spoke to local clergy and council officials. They welcomed our visit, but said that the families affected were looking after themselves in most cases. Only a handful had used the centre.
There was a need for large trucks to evacuate livestock from inundated farms, and for pumps and other heavy machinery to deal with standing water, but these needs were being slowly met through official channels. Another priority, the dredging of rivers to reduce flood damage in future years, is also likely to be addressed in due course. Meanwhile, volunteers mobilised by the Red Cross were providing assistance, and there was no need for Islamic Relief to bus in either supplies or volunteers.
In Worcester, at another church supporting flood victims, the story was similar. Our efforts and interest were warmly appreciated, but basic assistance was well in hand, and longer-term issues like future flood defences are for the proper authorities to deal with.
Our help may yet be needed as the flood waters recede, when a massive clear-up will be required. That may yet be when our volunteers come into their own. We will remain in regular communication with the appropriate authorities to offer our support, and we hope to be committed contributors to the UK’s national emergency response in the years to come.
Sometimes, however, you can be ready to answer the call and your assistance is simply not needed. On this occasion we can be grateful that we live in a country where the state can respond quite effectively to environmental disasters, where local communities are resilient and where existing volunteer networks are strong.
Our thanks go, nonetheless, to all the volunteers who put themselves forward. You are the heart and soul of Islamic Relief’s work, whatever the weather and wherever the need.