Unrelenting Rains Punish 20 Million Pakistanis

Pakistan struggles to provide food and shelter for millions of people displaced by flooding. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says he's never seen a disaster of this magnitude.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We're going to get a glimpse this morning of Pakistan's worst-ever humanitarian crisis. It's hard to grasp what it means to have 20 million people displaced by floods, but you get a sense when you listen to people trying to help a single Pakistani village. Here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

(Soundbite of rain)

JULIE MCCARTHY: The rains are unrelenting, and flooding that began more than two weeks ago in the mountainous northwest of Pakistan has now swept over about one-quarter of the country. As it's spread, it has engulfed the southern Punjab, the country's farm belt. In the district of Muzaffargarh, parts of the landscape have turned into a series of islands, as flood waters surround mounds of what is left of dry land.

(Soundbite of truck engine)

MCCARTHY: A truck loaded with supplies, the engine occasionally stalling, navigates the waters in a bid to reach those stranded in the village of Shah-gar. Pakistan's Indus River, the cradle of civilization in this part of the world, has swelled to 15 miles at points. Millions fled for their lives, one step ahead of the rising waters. Thousands remain cut off. The stranded say the rescue services are inadequate for large numbers of families seeking safer ground.

Residents are relying on the kindness of people like Gulam Mustafa and his band of mechanics turned relief workers.

You've raised money back home in another district to come here for four days in a row to deliver food - is that right, four days in a row?

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Five days, they shout.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

MCCARTHY: Residents of Shah-gar, a rise of land now separated by water, say the government has left them to their own devices. Twenty-six-year-old Mohammad Nadeem runs relief to this water-soaked area.

Has there been any government relief that's been here?

Mr. MOHAMMAD NADEEM: No government.

MCCARTHY: No government?

Mr. NADEEM: No government, no government.

MCCARTHY: Tell me, how many people are stranded here?

Mr. NADEEM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Two thousand, he says, and there could more.

The government is fragile and unpopular, but also without many resources to marshal. The only institution with any real heft is the Pakistan army. It is sheltering 60,000 residents in the Southern Punjab. But the misery even in those camps is audible.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

MCCARTHY: Hundreds queue at night for meager rations in the mud, as children gather water from a rudimentary pump. But one mother of six tells me the supplies are beyond her wildest imagination. Mushahid Khurshid's family of eight, on the other hand, has taken refuge in a plastic tent strung with the few pieces of clothing they have left.

Mr. MUSHAHID KHURSID: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: He says his children are getting sick, but he dares not complain to the army. Aid agencies express fears that disease in overcrowded and unsanitary camps may lead to epidemics.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, in the southern Punjab.

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