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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all