20 Million Made Homeless in Pakistan by Floods; Cholera Outbreak Feared

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The Guardian/UK

20 Million Made Homeless in Pakistan by Floods; Cholera Outbreak Feared

Impact of Pakistan floods as bad as 1947 partition, says prime minister

by
David Batty and Saeed Shah in Islamabad

A Pakistani mother carries her children through flood water in Muzaffargarh city, Punjab province. (Photograph: K.M.Chaudary/AP)

Pakistan's
government has compared the impact of the country's devastating floods
to the country's partition from India as it revealed more than 20
million people had been made homeless by the disaster.

The
prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, said the country faced challenges
similar to those during the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into
Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-majority Pakistan in which about
500,000 people were killed in mass violence and thousands of families
were torn apart as 10 million refugees crossed the new border.

Gilani
said 20 million people were now homeless and called on Pakistanis to
rise to the occasion, amid growing fears of social unrest or even a
military takeover following the government's shambolic response to the
floods.

"The nation faced the situation successfully at
that time [of the partition] and inshallah [God willing] we will emerge
successful in this test," he said.

About 1,600 people have
died in the floods and aid agencies expect the toll to rise due to
outbreaks of deadly waterborne diseases. A case of cholera was confirmed
today in Mingora, the main town in Swat Valley in the north-east of the
country, and UN aid workers are taking proactive measures to try to
avert a crisis.

A UN humanitarian operations spokesman,
Maurizio Giuliano, said at least 36,000 people believed to have
potentially fatal acute watery diarrhoea (AWD) were being treated for
cholera.

"Given that there is a significant risk of
cholera, which is a deadly and dangerous and a potentially epidemic
disease, instead of focusing on testing, everyone who has AWD is being
treated for cholera," he told Reuters.

Aid agencies have
warned that 6 million children are at risk of life-threatening
diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition and pneumonia. Stagnant flood plains
in densely populated, poverty-stricken urban areas may become breeding
grounds for cholera, mosquitos and malaria.

A spokesman for
the UK Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) said: "It's extremely
worrying that we are seeing the confirmation of our fears.

"We
now have to work very hard to prevent the spread of the disease. The
danger is that cholera is both deadly and spreads incredibly easily.
Unfortunately the circumstances in Pakistan are against us."

The
floods, triggered by torrential monsoon downpours just over two weeks
ago, engulfed Pakistan's Indus river basin. Relief operations have yet
to reach an estimated 6 million people, fuelling long-held grievances in
the flood-hit areas. Villages have been wiped away. Some people only
have a patch of land to stand on. But the impact of the disaster will be
felt throughout Pakistan's population of 170 million.

President Asif Ali Zardari,
who has drawn criticism for going abroad to meet the leaders of Britain
and France as the crisis unfolded, today vowed to rebuild the
devastated country.

"Despondency is forbidden in our
religion. We consider it as a test from Allah for us. This is a test for
us and for you," he told flood victims at a relief camp. "We will try
to meet all your wishes. We will build a new house for you. We will
build a new Pakistan."

Fears that Zardari could be
overthrown – possibly through an intervention by the army – have grown
as rescuers continue to struggle to help the millions of people
affected.

Najam Sethi, editor of the weekly Friday Times,
said: "The powers that be, that is the military and bureaucratic
establishment, are mulling the formation of a national government, with
or without the PPP [the ruling Pakistan People's party]. I know this is
definitely being discussed. There is a perception in the army that you
need good governance to get out of the economic crisis and there is no
good governance."

Other analysts say a military coup is
unlikely because the army's priority is fighting the Taliban insurgency,
and taking over during a disaster makes no sense.

In Sindh province, flood victims have complained of looting and there are signs of increasing lawlessness.

Gilani and the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif vowed to work together to tackle the crisis.

"Politics at this time is haram [forbidden by Islam]," Sharif said in a joint news conference.

The
agricultural heartland has been wiped out, which will cause spiralling
food prices and shortages. Many roads and irrigation canals have been
destroyed, along with electricity supply infrastructure.

"The
immediate risk is one of food riots," said Marie Lall, an Asia expert
at Chatham House. "There is already great resentment in Swat and Khyber
Pakhtunkhwa province where people had to be cleared during the
government offensive. Now there is the threat of social unrest as
various factions, families and ethnic groups compete with each other in
the event of a breakdown in government."

The World Bank
estimates that crops worth $1bn (£640m) have been ruined and the
Pakistani finance secretary warned today that the disaster would cut the
country's growth in half.

The government may have to spend
$1.7bn on reconstruction, and has said it will have to divert
expenditure from badly needed development programmes.

Fresh
downpours could bring more destruction and displacement. Scattered
showers with heavy downpours are expected in the upper north-west, upper
Punjab, parts of the north and Kashmir over the next 24 hours,
according to Pakistan's meteorological department.

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