Pakistan Floods: Cholera Spreads, Water Levels Continue To Rise, 20 Million Made Homeless In Worst Natural Disaster In Pakistan’s History

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More than 1,600 people are confirmed to have died with millions made homeless as water levels continue to rise

A Pakistani mother carries her children through floodwater in Muzaffargarh, Pakistan. (AP)

Two weeks into the worst natural disaster in its history, Pakistan is braced for further flooding as waters in the upper reaches of the swollen Indus river reach critical levels.

With more than 1,600 people confirmed dead and as many as 20 million made homeless, the country is reeling from the scale of the catastrophe wrought by torrential monsoon rains. The prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, said Pakistan now faced challenges similar to those during the 1947 partition of the subcontinent when as many as 500,000 people were killed.

He called on Pakistanis to rise to the occasion, amid growing fears of social unrest or even a military takeover given the government’s shambolic response to the floods. “The nation faced the situation successfully at that time of the partition and, God willing, we will emerge successful in this test,” he said.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, is expected to visit affected regions today. In the southern province of Sindh, 1.6 million people are stranded and half a million have been ordered to abandon their homes; in the northern Swat Valley, the first case of cholera has been recorded; while across the eastern state of Punjab, survivors are sleeping in the open without shelter.

Though water levels continue to rise, offers of international aid remains small compared with recent disasters elsewhere – to the dismay of Pakistan’s leaders and aid agencies. Only £96m has been pledged – with £31m of that from the British government – in response to a UN appeal for £295m in urgent aid.

International donations in the wake of the Haiti earthquake earlier in the year totalled £1.5bn. David Cameron’s criticism of Pakistan as an exporter of terrorism has been blamed in part for the lack of public sympathy, but so too has President Asif Ali Zardari’s failure to cancel a visit to Britain.

One aid agency has also suggested that flooding does not capture the public imagination in the way that other disasters might. Sarah Crowe, a Unicef spokeswoman, said: “Floods unfold relatively slowly, like the waters themselves, so it appears that people have time to leave or to be rescued, whereas earthquakes or a tsunami are extremely dramatic and violent and the shock triggers immediate sympathy and an outpouring of funds follows.”

India yesterday pledged £3.2m – the same amount it gave to Haiti – but not before its apparent hesitancy prompted claims that a recent political spat was overriding its humanitarian imperative. Critics said that Pakistan did not hesitate to come to India’s aid when the Gujarat earthquake killed 25,000 people in 2001. They said that India’s offer is a tiny fraction of its £500m aid budget for this year. China, which initially offered just £960,000, has now raised its contribution to £4.6m. Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee appeal has raised £12m from public donations.

Zamir Akram, the country’s ambassador to the UN, criticised the international response and claimed that the scale of the disaster was only just beginning to sink in.

Pakistan cancelled most of its independence day celebrations yesterday as its leaders renewed calls for help. Gilani warned that his government could not cope with the crisis on its own. In an unfortunately worded statement, however, Zardari – who was later due to tour flood-affected areas – again drew criticism by appearing to underplay the scale of the disaster. “The enthusiasm of independence day this year… has been dampened because of the unprecedented floods that have devastated the lives of thousands of people and left scars on the lives of several hundred thousands more in all parts of the country,” he said.

Late yesterday, however, there were no indication that the worst was over. Indeed, Pakistan’s flood control department warned that water in the upper reaches of the Indus was at “very high levels”. At some points along its course, the river was reported to be 15 miles wide – more than 25 times its normal size. Further flooding is now expected in Sindh province, which contains Karachi, the country’s largest city.

The discovery of the first cholera case in Mingora, in the Swat valley, confirmed the worst fears of aid agencies who had been warning of the danger of disease. Cholera can lead to severe dehydration and death without prompt treatment, and containing cholera outbreaks is a priority following floods.

The UN said that it feared the case was not isolated, adding that it was now treating 36,000 people as if they were suffering cholera. Aid agencies warned that six million children were at risk of life-threatening diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition and pneumonia.

“Don’t ask me about the disease outbreak at this moment,” said Dr Tanveer Fatima, the superintendent of a hospital in Rajanpur. “Our hospital is drowning in front of our eyes. The water is five to six feet high and rescue teams are shifting patients from this to other hospitals… Water is rising today.”

A spokesman for the Disasters Emergency Committee said: “We are seeing the confirmation of our fears. The danger is that cholera is both deadly and spreads incredibly easily. Unfortunately the circumstances in Pakistan are against us.” Many flood victims are now living in muddy camps or overcrowded government buildings, while thousands more are sleeping in the open.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton, the former director general of the Met Office, said that the floods demonstrated the need for better international flood warnings.

‘Huge boulders were everywhere’

A 28-year-old Save the Children worker, unnamed for security reasons, undertook an arduous 50km trek to assist aid distribution programmes in the town of Kalam in the Swat Valley. He made the journey on foot after roads in the area were destroyed. This is from his blog:

“We reached the first town, Adyan, after crossing two hills. The entire shape of the city had changed – the floods created a river that went straight through the middle of town, completely destroying the main market. Mud and dust was everywhere, as were huge boulders that the flood had carried right into town. We finally reached a city, Bahrain, which used to be a big tourist destination with lots of hotels, restaurants, and beautiful riverside cafes. I was there five years ago on holiday with my family.

“The city is now unrecognisable. It is like something has taken a huge pile of rocks and mud and thrown it all over the city. The main bazaar is completely destroyed. Three-storey hotels have tumbled down and the main road through the town was covered in five feet of mud. In Kalam, 90% of the main market, which provides a livelihood for so many people, was completely destroyed. It was unrecognisable. It looked like it might have 100 years ago: no cars – they had all washed away – no clean water supply, which was previously run by an electric pumping station, now destroyed.”

Read the blog at

Gethin Chamberlain and Saeed Shah in Islamabad
Sunday 15 August 2010

Source: The Observer

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