Pakistanis adrift on an ocean of misery: Tim McGirk follows the wave of death and devastation that is sweeping across the land

THE COWS, the trees and the house with little people waving frantically from the roof looked as if they were all drifting in an ocean current, one that was sweeping everything off the curve of the earth. This was Punjab during the floods.

The Pakistan army helicopter circled in on a house no bigger than a raft, where a donkey was up to his neck in muddy water because there was no space for the animal on the roof. A farmer's family huddled on the roof. Some stood on a rope-framed bed, and the children balanced on a wall next to a bright circle of tomatoes.

In the helicopter, one of the airmen heaved out a bundle of food to the starving flood survivors below. There was bread, apples and two large bags of dried nuts that burst open in mid-air and rained down, irretrievably, into the trees and the floodwater. The farmer stood motionless, in water up to his chest, as though he had been turned into stone by this final misfortune.

Only from the air is it possible to comprehend the devastation that this past week of floods has caused to Pakistan. Punjab means 'Land of Five Rivers', but it seemed as though these five rivers had merged to become one gigantic river flooding everything inwards from the horizon. In this aquatic landscape houses have simply dissolved. Mango groves disappeared like dots receding across a brown page. And, every so often, a man appeared, either swimming, wading or punting across a broad expanse of water in a wobbly basket, while a flock of white egrets scattered.

In Britain it is big news if nine people die in a flood. But here in the sub-continent, disasters tend to occur on a more epic scale, a wider panorama. So far, more than 2,000 Pakistanis have perished in these floods, and another 1,000 people died from the same heavy rainstorm which also hit northern India.

Yet these flood victims exhibit a stoicism forged by many tragedies. They get on with it. Nobody seems to mind, for example, when a vendor decides to sell his fritters to a crowd gathered at the end of a broken dyke to see three farmers try to swim across a murderous current. Many farmers here in Panjnad refused to be evacuated, preferring to stay inside the earthen corrals around their huts or, if that puny defence is demolished by the waters, simply to cling from the nearest tree. 'It's very difficult to pull them out of these places,' said Major Ashgar Shiraz, an army spokesman in Multan. 'Many of them refuse to leave.' In Pakistan, 2,900 villages have been flooded, and much of the country's richest farmland has been devastated. Agriculture experts claim that most of Pakistan's cotton crop, which provides 50 per cent of export earnings, was destroyed by flood waters. The floods are expected to reach Sind today, causing more destruction before spilling into the Arabian Sea. The floods have swept across Pakistan from the Himalayas like an invading army. Since the waters thundered out of the Kashmir mountains, the Pakistan military's strategy has been to combat the tide by blasting open the dykes and river banks. This way fields are flooded but the towns, cities, major dams and bridges are spared.

Helicopters were used to drop in soldiers armed with shovels. Trains and lorries loaded with stones were rushed to fortify the embankments around towns and cities of Sind and Punjab. This mobile defence worked well until the floods hit Muzaffargarh, a town of 50,000 inhabitants in southern Punjab. There, the combined forces of the Ravi, Jhelum and Chenab rivers punched through the army's defensive perimeter of earthen dams and ate away half of the town.

It had been evacuated several hours earlier and the refugees sat on a long sliver of land with their beds, blankets and useless television sets and watched their houses crumble away in the swirling current. A floodgate at Panjnad, regarded as a potential risk, resisted the torrent, which came within three feet of demolishing it.

The next battle for army engineers will be farther south, as the flood pours into Sind. There, at Guddu, a power plant on the banks of the Indus river stands in danger of being washed away. The flood waters also threaten to destroy a major irrigation network and cut road and rail links between Karachi, Pakistan's major industrial city, and the rest of the drenched country.

Opposition politicians have accused Nawaz Sharif's government of incompetence and apathy.

(Photograph omitted)