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Natural disaster and human greed in Pakistan

  • 01 September 2010
On the road in from the airport, the water shimmered under the moonlight as men, women and children sat in the dark near the would-be lakeshore. During the day, river dolphins can usually be spotted in the nearby river. Idyllic, you might think. But this dusty and ramshackle town is at the front-line of one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters in living memory. Usually there is no water lapping up at the roadside, and the only people there would be those out for an evening snack after the daytime Ramadan fast. But since torrential monsoon rain sent the Indus River spilling onto towns and farmland the length of Pakistan, an area the size of Italy has been deluged. In downtown Sukkur, I spoke to Ashraf, who said he had left his family at the outskirts before coming into town to buy some food. 'We managed to gather up some of our possessions before the waters came, but we did not have much warning. Our home is under water completely. I have enough money to feed my children for another couple of days, that is all.' Like a few more flood victims I encountered, he had to pay three times the normal price for a bus to the city, as opportunists capitalise on people's desperation, to make a quick rupee. Nature's unwitting cruelty was followed, here and there, then, by man's calculated greed. The last time a natural disaster hit this country, 80,000 people died in thirteen seconds when an earthquake rocked Kashmir. This time, the death-toll is much lower and the disaster is unfolding slowly over many weeks. But the impact is vast – running the entire 1976 mile length of the Indus River from the mountainous north of Pakistan, where that 2005 quake hit, to these flood-prone plains in the south. Everywhere cases of diarrhea, cholera, skin diseases, as well as malaria and dengue – with mosquitoes proliferating amid the floodwaters – are growing. Almost 5 million people now have no access to clean water, an irony seemingly lifted from Coleridge's line about 'water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.' 17 million acres of land is under water and, out of the mind-boggling 20 million people thought to be affected by the floods – around 800,000 remain beyond the reach of aid workers or the Pakistani army, cut off by the rising waters that dissolved bridges and submerged roads. This