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Mass evacuations as flood threatens to destroy dam

Rising water levels were last night threatening one of Pakistan's largest dams, forcing the authorities to evacuate more people even as raging floods surged south into the country's heartland, destroying communities and ruining livelihoods. Officials in the country's north-west said unprecedented flooding had caused the water level at Warsak Dam near Peshawar to soar, already prompting the voluntary evacuation of some of the city's residents and forcing the authorities to draw up plans to move those who sought to stay. "If needed, forced evacuation will be started," said Adnan Khan of the Disaster Management Authority of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Even while waters recede in some parts of the north-west, it is far from clear that the country's misery is over. Aid agencies estimate more than 3.2m people have now been affected by the nation's most severe floods in recent history and the water that has caused such chaos is now reportedly moving south, sweeping into Punjab province.

Officials say many districts in the country's most populated and prosperous area – and centre of its wheat belt – had already been inundated with floods, among them Layyah, Taunsa Sharif, Rajan Pur and Dera Ghazi Khan.

Military spokesman Major Farooq Feroz told the Associated Press that around 3,000 people were marooned in the Kot Addu area after water breached a protection bank.

He said the Army was trying to carry out a rescue operation using boats and helicopters. In many of these areas, the water was so high that only the treetops and uppermost floors of some buildings were visible.

For the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by the floods in the country's north, disease has emerged as a pressing danger.

The UN's World Food Programme said an estimated 1.8m required water, food and shelter. Additionally, some people are being bitten by water snakes.

But while fresh drinking water and medicine may be needed to staunch the spread of water-borne ailments, the destruction of so much infrastructure – the washing away of roads, the downing of phone lines and damage to bridges – is hampering relief efforts.

Aid workers said that as frustration grew among those affected by the floods, the situation was becoming increasingly tense. There have already been reports of isolated skirmishes among people receiving food. Save the Children said such incidents had taken place in Nowshera, a district that was totally submerged by the rains.

In neighbouring Charssada, police drew their batons and charged at residents who had attacked a truck distributing aid items. Matt Wingate, an emergency response leader with the charity, said: "Families are stranded and desperate for food. There are 40,000 children in the region, many of whom are already going hungry. We are delivering aid as fast as we can, but are hampered by the conditions.

"When aid does get to them, the atmosphere can be very tense. There is a critical need to get more clean water, food and medical assistance to thousands of children and their families in the next few days."

While the military has dispatched around 30,000 troops to spearhead the rescue effort, public anger is mounting over what is widely seen as an inadequate response by the country's civilian authorities. Many have expressed anguish that President Asif Ali Zardari is visiting Europe, arriving yesterday in Britain for a meeting with David Cameron later this week, even while the country faces such problems.

Yet few would deny the scale of the challenge faced by the authorities. The floods that have already killed at least 1,500 people are unlike anything Pakistan has seen in more than 80 years. And even if a second wave of expected monsoon rains is not forthcoming, people will still face intense problems in the weeks and months ahead. Already reports suggest food prices are starting to rise because so much agricultural production has been destroyed.

The loss of so many crops was one of the reasons the WFP estimated that some 1.8m Pakistanis would need food assistance for at least the next month.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon said yesterday it was sending six helicopters from Afghanistan to help ferry relief supplies or refugees in Pakistan.

Officials said that four CH-47 Chinooks could carry dozens of people or wounded on stretchers or haul enormous loads of equipment or supplies.

Two smaller UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters serve as workhorse transports. The helicopters were supposed to have arrived by Tuesday but were delayed, typically enough, by the continuing bad weather.