Floods menace Punjab and Sind plains

Floods that devastated parts of northern Pakistan are now pouring into the plains of Punjab and Sind, menacing heavily populated towns and the country's farmlands. Army engineers yesterday battled to stop four flooded rivers from joining in a mighty wave powerful enough to smash the dams spanning the Indus and cause great devastation. So far more than 2,000 people have died in the floods. Hundreds of villages have been washed away. It is feared that the death-toll could rise much higher unless the force of these torrents is weakened.

Relief efforts yesterday focused on Muzaffargarh, central Punjab, where soldiers and volunteers used picks and shovels and bulldozers and dynamite to divert the flood before it swamped this town of 50,000 people. Army helicopters landed soldiers along potential flood zones, where they shovelled frantically to raise the river banks. By nightfall, floodwaters were still threatening Muzaffargarh and its citizens had been evacuated or were sleeping on the roofs of houses and mosques.

Most of Punjab and Sind are plains, scarcely above sea level, and the flood waters which came roaring down from the Himalayas have spread out for many miles. Only the heads of date palms and mango trees are visible, rising above this vast rolling brown sea.

When the mud huts were washed away like sandcastles, many families climbed trees and hauled up their few belongings. They cling there, in a messy nest tied together with ropes, beds and clothes, awaiting rescuers. Sleep in the trees was impossible for the victims: survivors from the village of Chah Mirza said dozens of snakes attached themselves to the trees and tried to slither up. Relief officials said dozens of people survived the flood, only to die of snake bites. Rescuers have tried to reach the victims in makeshift rafts and even by swimming.

In Multan, the city's inhabitants spent a sleepless Tuesday night as they waited to see whether army engineers had succeeded in blasting open breaches along the river bank to stop the city from being submerged. The city was saved from flooding but the channels which were cut to siphon off the water ended up destroying thousands of acres of cotton, maize, wheat and barley in the surrounding countryside.

Two farmers and a policeman were killed in a brawl when the farmers tried to stop officials from sacrificing their fields to appease the oncoming flood. Pakistani officials estimate damages so far at more than pounds 300m.

The Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, yesterday visited some of the refugee camps. He appealed for aid and donations from within Pakistan and abroad. Britain has pledged pounds 100,000 in relief supplies. Medical workers are concerned that in the hundreds of refugee camps, where families crouch under plastic sheets, there may soon be outbreaks of malaria and typhoid.

As these floods, the worst to hit Pakistan this century, sweep south, the army is digging in for its next big battle. Hundreds of thousands of people are being evacuated from the Panjnad district, where the Sutlej, Ravi, Jhelum, and Chenab rivers meet in a powerful surge with the Indus. Despite the alert, more than 1,000 families are refusing to flee.

Unless the floods are contained before today, the danger exists that a wall of water will rear up, capable of smashing through a barrage at Guddu and, further down the Indus, a dam above Sukkur. If the Sukkur dam burst, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people living downriver could die.