City saved as floods devastate Pakistan

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The Independent Online
ROARING floodwaters continued to sweep south along Punjab's five rivers yesterday, inundating hundreds more villages. But, after hectic overnight efforts to strengthen embankments, Multan, Punjab's third-largest city, was saved from the floods.

A freak of nature saved 1.5 million people in the city where Sufi saints are buried and which boasts some of the great monuments of the Mogul empire. Two of Punjab's rivers, the Jhelum and the Chenab, whose tidal waves wreaked havoc further north, passed a few miles from Multan.

Further south, the Pakistani army is preparing to evacuate 600,000 people from the city of Sukkur, as rising floodwaters threaten to burst a dam on the Indus. The floods, which have already left up to 5,000 dead and more than 1 million homeless, are sweeping southwards along the Jhelum and Chenab. Officials fear that if they converge simultaneously, it could throw up a towering, 60ft wall of water that could easily smash a dam built in the 1930s by the British. Thousands may perish, and some of Pakistan's richest farmland will be destroyed, causing devastation that will take Pakistan years, if not decades, to repair.

On Monday, army engineers had shored up two defence lines of earthen embankments along the city perimeter to prevent the rivers flooding Multan. Experts feared the two tidal waves would converge there, but there was a nine-hour time lag between the two and the defences held.

However, an even bigger wave is possible. All of Punjab's five rivers, including the Indus, converge downstream near Panjnad. South of Multan, engineers are blasting embankments to draw the rushing waters off into the fields.

'We are evacuating people as fast as we can. Our strategy is to minimise human losses, then save the cattle herds and crops,' Shah Mahmood Querishi, Punjab's Finance Minister, said after returning from Multan last night.

According to preliminary estimates, Punjab alone has suffered 16bn rupees ( pounds 370m) of damage to roads, bridges, crops and buildings, while further north in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, where many areas are still inaccessible, officials have not even begun to assess the damage.

Evidence is now coming to light of how the catastrophe was almost as much man-made - by incompetent officials - as by freak monsoon rains. Without any warning, during the rains, engineers opened the sluice-gates of the Mangla dam, one of the largest in the world, fearing it might collapse. At least 400 people living on an island in the Jhelum were swept away.

The floodwaters will reach Sind province in about three days, and low-lying areas near the Indus are expected to be flooded.

Pakistan flood inquiry telephone numbers:

Pakistan High Commission, London (071) 235 2044, ask for community relations section.

Foreign Ministry, Islamabad (Crisis Management Cell) 010 9251 821934.