Pakistan counts cost as force of the flood eases

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The Independent Online
The worst devastation caused by 10 days of flooding in Pakistan has ended. Although the floods are still advancing through the farm belt of southern Punjab and Sind, the force of the raging waters has diminished, according to Pakistani officials.

A showdown between man and Nature occurred yesterday at Guddu, a long dam spanning the Indus River on Sind's border with Punjab. At risk was Asia's biggest power plant, which stands on the Guddu riverbanks with its high voltage lines swooping dangerously low over the swollen river.

Also menaced by the floods was an irrigation system connected to the dam watering millions of acres. To save the Guddu Dam, and the heavily populated industrial towns below it, army engineers were forced to blast holes in the embankment up-river at Panjnad yesterday, sacrificing hundreds of evacuated villages and low-lying farmland.

Two Muslim clergymen sat on top of the dam reciting the Koran to invoke divine help. A government provincial deputy, fearing the breach would flood his constituency, deployed dozens of armed men to stop the engineers.

A breach on the left side was ruled out because of fears that it would affect densely populated towns and destroy precious stores of grain and fertilizer worth millions of pounds in Rahimyar Khan district, officials said.

Army engineers also feared that the five flooded rivers racing across Pakistan would converge on the Indus at the same time, causing a huge inland wave that would wreak terrible destruction. But the army was able to prevent this by dynamiting the river banks in places to slow the advance of the rivers so that the floods did not all hit the Indus at once.

So far, these monsoon floods have claimed more than 2,000 lives, devastated crops in a broad swathe across Pakistan and have marooned around 1.5 million people without homes. In Islamabad, the government yesterday raised damage estimates to more than pounds 900m. In Sind, the latest region hit by flooding, more than 1,000 villages along the Indus were submerged yesterday.

A Guddu Dam engineer, Abdul Satah, said: 'If the army didn't open the breaches, this barrage would not be standing.' While scores of families fled the rising waters, there was heavy traffic also going in the opposite direction, towards the dam. Curious onlookers clung from bus-roofs and horse and buggies, riding to Guddu. They wanted to see if the dam could withstand the floods. If the Guddu did collapse, these thousands of sightseers would have been the first to be swept to their deaths in the Indus's whirlpools and rapids. Downriver, the Sukkur Dam, built by Britain in the 1930s, and the Kotri, also held firm against the currents.

As the floods roared through Sind, the water was being contained by two 20ft-high earthen walls that had been bulldozed into place eight miles inland from the Indus River. These walls run parallel to the Indus and cut through a soggy, flat landscape of palm groves pounded into the grey mud. Thousands of refugees, dragging along their goats and cattle, are now setting up camp on top of these earthen walls. Some aid workers expressed concern that malaria, dysentery and typhoid may soon break out among the flood victims unless medical relief reaches them soon.

Sind's Chief Minister, Muzaffar Hussain Shah, cautioned that even though the flood seems to be reined in, more villages could be submerged over the next two days. 'We can contain the waters within the embankments, but it's an area close to a thousand miles,' he said. Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, yesterday toured some of the flood-damaged areas and promised immediate relief funds to refugees.

The flood has unleashed a torrent of political woes for Mr Sharif. The opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, accused the Islamabad government of 'criminal delay' in failing to alert the farmers in time in her Larkana constituency in Sind that the sluicegates of the Mangla Dam upriver would be opened. Over 40 people died, unable to escape the wall of water let loose from the Mangla Dam.

Mr Sharif now has earned a reputation for falling back on the army during a crisis. The army stepped in recently to chase bandits in Sind after Mr Sharif's government proved too corrupt and unwilling to handle the task. Now, relief workers claim, it was swift action by the army and not the civil authorities that prevented thousands more Pakistanis from dying in the monsoon floods.