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)

News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features playground gun massacre
News
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations should be regarded as an offensive act
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
people
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Hydraulic Power Pack Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I recruit for contract mechanical design...

SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

SCO Supervisor Electrical

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client based in the Midlands is looki...

Ecommerce Executive

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Ecommerce Executive Working with an...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices