Famine threatens flood-hit Pakistan

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ONE MONTH after the disaster began, flood waters were threatening to engulf two more towns in southern Pakistan yesterday, as the United Nations warned tens of thousands of children are now at risk of death from malnutrition.

• A young girl, whose family was displaced from their homes by flooding, holds an empty container as she lines up for food rations at a flood relief camp run by the Pakistan Army. Pic Getty

The floods are Pakistan's worst-ever natural disaster in terms of the amount of damage and the number of people affected, with more than six million forced from their homes, about a million of them in the past few days as the water flows south.

So far the disaster has claimed about 1,600 lives, inflicted billions of pounds of damage to homes, infrastructure and the vital agriculture sector and stirred anger against the Islamabad government, which has struggled to cope.

Floods are beginning to recede across most of the country as the water flows downstream, but high tides in the Arabian Sea mean they still pose a threat to towns in Sindh province, such as Thatta, 45 miles east of Karachi. Water had broken the banks of the Indus near Thatta and also broken out of a feeder canal running off the river, compounding the danger, Riaz Ahmed Soomro, relief commissioner in the southern province of Sindh, said.

"The water has not reached the town up to now but it is approaching," Soomro said.

Tens of thousands of people have poured out of the delta town, which normally has a population of about 300,000, after authorities told people to leave.

The UN, the Pakistani army and a host of local and international relief groups have been rushing aid workers, medicine, food and water to the affected regions, but have so far been unable to reach many people.

Yesterday, flood victims blocked a road in Thatta to protest at the shortage of aid, most of which is randomly thrown from trucks into crowds of the desperately needy.

"The people who come here to give us food treat us like beggars. They just throw the food. It is humiliating," said 80-year-old Karima, who uses only one name. She was living in the graveyard with more than two dozen relatives.

The floods have also displaced thousands of minority Hindus in southern Sindh.About 3,000 were living at a centuries-old Hindu temple inside the sprawling graveyard.

"I am also fasting and praying for the flood to recede as it has already snatched husbands from wives, sons and daughters from parents, brothers from sisters, and sisters from brothers," said Geeta Bai, 32, as she sat outside the temple.

The floods began in late July after torrential monsoon downpours over the upper Indus basin.

The death toll is expected to rise significantly as more bodies of the many missing people are found, and more than eight million people are in need of emergency assistance nationwide.

Even before the floods, Pakistan's economy was fragile. Growth, forecast at 4.5 per cent this fiscal year, is now predicted at anything between zero and 3 per cent.

The floods have damaged at least 3.2 million hectares, about 14 per cent of Pakistan's entire cultivated land. The total cost in crop damages is believed to be about 245 billion rupees (1.84bn.)

Such is the shortage of food that authorities have been battling for days to save the town of Shahdadkot in northern Sindh's rice-growing belt, raising an embankment several kilometres long as the water has crept higher.

According to Soomro, the flood barrier is still holding so far.

The UN said aid workers were becoming increasingly worried about disease and hunger, especially among children in areas where even before the disaster, acute malnutrition was high.

"We fear the deadly synergy of waterborne diseases, including diarrhoea, dehydration and malnutrition," senior UNICEF official Karen Allen said in a statement.

UN humanitarian co-ordinator Martin Mogwanja said the international response to the disaster must be more assertive.

"If nothing is done, an estimated 72,000 children, currently affected by severe malnutrition in the flood-affected areas, are at high risk of death," he said.

The floods are another huge problem for a government which came to power after the 2008 election, restoring civilian rule after nearly a decade.

As well as grappling with economic problems, the government has been struggling to stop Islamist militant violence.

Early yesterday, militants being questioned at a security agency building in the northwestern city of Peshawar overpowered two guards and took them hostage.

The militants later surrendered and the guards were freed. There were no casualties, according to a Pakistani military spokesman, although the situation will be viewed as highly embarrassing for the army.Peshawar, the main city in the northwest where there have been numerous militant attacks, has not been flooded but flash floods caused extensive damage in parts of the northwest.

Meanwhile, in the United States, an ally which regards Pakistan as a front-line state in its war against the Taleban in Afghanistan, concern has been growing that Islamist charities linked to militants have increased their involvement in relief efforts, possibly aiming to exploit public anger to gain recruits.

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