Pakistan reels under flood waves

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The Independent Online
BUFFALOES, goats and thousands of people clutching bundles of clothes and the odd 'charpoi' or bed have clogged up the old Grand Trunk Road that runs from Lahore to Islamabad.

The road is the only high ground for miles around and these are just some of the millions of people trying to save themselves from the century's worst flood in Pakistan, which has already claimed 2,000 lives, wiped out half the crop in Punjab and destroyed every river bridge in Kashmir.

The government yesterday ordered the evacuation of hundreds of villages and an estimated 50,000 troops were put on alert as a state of emetgency was declared in the Sind provinces of Sukkur, Larkana and Dadu.

Ghulam Rasul, a farmer whose entire village was washed away, said: 'We received no warning, the radio said nothing. We just woke up in the morning with our homes and our fields flooded.'

Last week it rained right across the Punjab and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir for 72-hours non- stop. The five huge river systems that cross Punjab and head south to Sind and the sea burst their banks. Flood surges are sweeping down two rivers - the Jhelum and the Chenab - which carry water from the mountains of Kashmir.

Gaps were blasted by army engineers along the banks of the century-old barrages built by the Raj to irrigate the Punjab. Their action saved the barrages but flooded the rich surrounding agricultural land for hundreds of miles.

Last night, the waters had reached the outskirts of Multan, the historic 'city of saints' in Southern Punjab, and residents were advised to move to safe places as embankments were being strengthened. Today, the flood surges in the Jhelum and Chenab are expected to meet the mighty Indus river and the devastation will multiply. And in two days' time, the surges are expected to hit northern Sind, bringing fresh floods to a province already racked by poverty and and severe law and order problems.

In Kashmir, more than 100,000 Pakistani troops, who face the Indian army across the disputed line of control, are completely cut off. In Punjab, the rice crop, which was about to be harvested, has been washed away and at least 50 per cent of the cotton crops destroyed. Both crops are principal export earners for the country. The planting of wheat and sugar cane which had started is now impossible in the flooded fields.

Millions of people are homeless, and the numbers are rising every day. But the government's response to the catastrophe has been poor. In the middle of the disaster, Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister, decided to take his family on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Even though BBC World Service television was warning of heavy rain last week, there was no warning on the state-run media.

Every year there is some degree of flooding during the monsoon and a large bureaucratic structure exists to deal with relief work, but this time the government has remained paralysed. Punjab's chief minister, Ghulam Haider Wyne, was attacked by angry villagers when he attempted to commiserate with them.

The army has taken over the entire relief operation. On Sunday, the federal cabinet had to be briefed by generals on the extent of the damage because the government had no statistics of its own. The high profile that the army has assumed is an ominous development - the military is already running Sind province and many people have long been convinced that corrupt politicians care little for the misery of the people.

The opposition, led by Benazir Bhutto, has accused the government of criminal negligence and has demanded its immediate resignation. She is threatening to organise a mass march on Islamabad this week.

Mr Sharif has even lost the support of his own Muslim League party by his performance and many of the party's senior members are now demanding that he be replaced as prime minister to save the League from the growing popularity of Miss Bhutto.

As another rainstorm lashed Lahore last night many people were wondering whether the floods would lead to the fall of the government and plunge Pakistan into a fresh political crisis.

(Photograph omitted)