Cholera Follows Pakistan Floods; Six Million Face Crisis

More than two weeks of monsoon rains in Pakistan have killed 1,600 people, left millions homeless and created a humanitarian crisis. And now, there's a health crisis looming, too. Officials have reported the first case of cholera, which can spread quickly in the flood-ravaged areas where the water has been contaminated. Host Liane Hansen gets the latest on the situation from NPR's Julie McCarthy in southern Punjab.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Pakistans Prime Minister now says that 20 million people are affected by the countrys catastrophic floods. More than two weeks of monsoon rains have killed 1,600, left millions homeless and created a humanitarian crisis. Now, there's a health crisis. Officials have reported the first case of cholera, which can spread quickly in the flood-ravaged areas where the water has been contaminated.

As U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon arrived to survey the damage, the United Nations said more than six million people have not had access to any relief.

NPRs Julie McCarthy is in the southern Punjab, where floodwaters have forced the evacuation of whole villages. And, Julie, can you describe what its like where you are?

JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, the victims here from the flooding, they're crammed into muddy camps, the lucky ones. They're cuing up in long lines late into the night for really meager rations. Others are sleeping under the skies with virtually no protection, Liane, from the relentless rain and sickness. And keeping epidemics in check is now a huge challenge.

These waterborne diseases, as you had mentioned, can easily erupt. Millions of people dont have access to decent food, clean water or medicine. And the World Food Program says that eight million people have been affected here in the southern Punjab.

Southern Punjab is the cotton belt of Pakistan. Along with their homes that were washed away were millions of acres of crops. The World Bank estimated a billion dollars of crops have been ruined.

So this is a country thats battling electricity shortages and a Taliban militancy waiting to exploit the whole disaster, and now there's disaster.

HANSEN: This is Pakistan's worst natural disaster and there have been complaints about the way the government has responded. How does the relief effort look from there?

MCCARTHY: Well, the combination here, from what I can see of the army, international NGOs, the government, private individuals, but when you come away with it Liane and step back, you see it's simply not well-coordinated. The disaster has overwhelmed the capacity of any government - thats what you keep hearing. But in the absence of the government, individual citizens are delivering the food. They're trying to supply the medicine.

I met a group of mechanics from another district who left their jobs, loaded up their truck, raised money and they're ferrying food to people who are cut off on these islands of land. They're surrounded by water. And I drove with them through these flooded where they were greeted by this huge semicircle of men and women and children who were sitting around waiting to break their fast. It's Ramadan here.

Fasting is a challenging thing in normal times, but in filthy conditions - and they were holding up bottles of drinking water, their tap water was filthy -it's an even bigger challenge.

The World Food Program says theyve only been able to reach about 10,000 people. The need is much greater than that. The army has reached 60,000 people here in the southern Punjab. It says it's sheltering them and thats burnished its image, in contrast to government which, as you mentioned, is suffering.

HANSEN: Could there be political fallout for President Asif Ali Zardari and his government?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, there is this - he was here touring the region. He's the object of deep scorn for having left, as the flooding began, for Europe. People said, well, as he was vacationing we're drowning. It's described as Zardari's Katrina.

But that said, he's a figurehead president, Liane. He's not the administrator. Thats the job of the prime minister. But the image of the president, figurehead or not, vacationing in Europe while floods rage back home has ignited a fury that could have serious repercussions politically.

HANSEN: And briefly, whats the U.S. doing to contribute?

MCCARTHY: The U.S. moved a lot of manpower and money in here. There's the U.S. amphibious ship anchored off of Karachi. It's ferrying helicopters to people, rescuing them, delivering aid. This is an opportunity for the United States to burnish its image in a country where there's huge anti-American sentiment raging. And, of course, the United States is deeply concerned. It's a delicate time for Pakistan. The Americans are fully aware of the need to make sure it doesnt become even more destabilized by virtue of this unprecedented flooding.

HANSEN: NPR's Julie McCarthy in Pakistan. Julie, thanks.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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