We lost everything except each other

Zia-ur-Rehman, a person with disability, smiling broadly as he talks about his experiences in 2022 floods in Pakistan
Image: wateraid/ Kamran Mohyudin

‘Let’s leave, hurry, get up, run!!’. “I heard these calls as water was gushing inside our house. But I could neither get up, nor could walk and run. All I could do was to firmly lock my gaze with my mother. It was her reassuring eyes and unflinching resolve that gave me the trust that I could live through this. She carried me in her arms, which no longer felt of an elderly weak woman and we rushed out of the house.”

This is the story of Zia Ur Rehman, 22, a person with physical disability, who lived with his mother and uncle in Chak Patiat, Fazilpur, in the District of Rajanpur in South Punjab. Fazilpur is an ancient town and business center alongside the Indus Highway. This was one of the worst hit area of 2022 floods in Pakistan.

The time in the camp was extremely challenging for Zia. "For a while, we took refuge in a camp in the grounds of a railway station on the outskirts of Fazilpur" he tells. The lack of functioning toilets at this camp was one of the biggest issues. A lot of people were practicing open defecation.

Women around us felt uncomfortable when my mother helped me use the toilet. On the other hand, my mother wasn’t able to take me to the men’s side. In those days, my hygiene conditions got worse. I would hold back the call of nature to not burden my mother, sometimes for so long that I would end up soiling myself.”

“I felt so helpless when I saw young children helping their parents and wished that I could do the same for my mother. But the situation was opposite for me as I depended on her for my very basic needs such as using a toilet. She never once complained. At night, she would tell me stories of other families in the camps, and how a lot of them lost their loved ones."

At least we are together, my dear. She would tell me this every night.

Zia-ur-Rehman, with his mother.
Zia-ur-Rehman, with his mother.
Image: wateraid/ Kamran Mohyudin

Zia was diagnosed with Polio at the age of 2. His father died when he was very young and he could only recall his vague memory. “Disability is seen as a curse in our society. My mother wanted me to study, but schools would not accept me. I can read though. My uncle sometimes gets me magazines. I really enjoy reading them” says Zia.

Zia was one of the 600 recipients of a toilet wheelchair distributed among the persons with disabilities by WaterAid in collaboration with its local partner, Society for Special Persons (SSP). The distribution of toilet wheelchairs was also a pleasant social event in times of despair. “I and my mother attended the WaterAid’s toilet wheelchair distribution event. I met with other persons with disabilities. We spoke about our challenges during the floods, shared our life stories and most importantly got guidance to use our wheelchairs effectively.”

In his 22 years of age, Zia was using wheelchair for the first time. He is thrilled by the fact that such a basic reasonable accommodation existed and he could have access to it. “One small thing can bring so much change in one’s life. After getting the toilet wheelchair, my mother and I took a long walk. She was no longer breathless. This will always be one of the happiest memories of my life”.

Zia and other members of his community have now returned back to their villages where flood water has now receded. However, a lot still needs to be rebuilt to bring back the normalcy to their lives. But for Zia, the small improvement in his life brought by the wheelchair is so precious. He is happy for the fact that he can now spend more quality time with his mother instead of being dependent on her for his WASH needs. His relationship with his mother has further strengthened through these testing times.  “We did lose all our belongings in the flood, but not each other. Today I feel confident, and my mother is now at ease", says Zia about the difference which wheelchair will continue to make in his life.  

Zia's story is a powerful reminder that in Pakistan, people with disabilities face enormous challenges in accessing basic needs like sanitation and hygiene. While the distribution of toilet wheelchairs has provided some relief, it is just the first step towards meeting the needs of this vulnerable group. By improving the accessibility of WASH infrastructure and making it more inclusive for people with disabilities, we can help break down barriers and promote greater dignity, independence, and self-confidence.