Residents Of Pakistani Town Battle Indus River

In Pakistan, the southern town of Shahdad Kot never expected to be hit by the massive flooding that is sweeping south through the country. But the Indus River breached its banks farther north and sent water cascading toward the rice farming region. The people of Shahdad Kot banded together to build a levee in a matter of days.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The town of Shahdad Kot in southern Pakistan was never supposed to be hit by the massive flooding that's sweeping south through the country. But the Indus River breached its banks further north and sent water cascading toward the rice farming region. It took a massive effort by the town's people to build a levee they hope will keep the water at bay. NPR's Julie McCarthy is on the other side of that levee, waiting to see if it holds.

Julie, tell us how the floodwaters managed to even reach this town.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, that's the question a lot of people want to know. That's the question communities are asking themselves across Pakistan, Renee. The Indus River has turned up in places that now one ever expected, and they haven't seen it - it hasn't been seen in living memory.

The local residents here believe there was a breach further north, either on a barrage, which is a water barrier, or a canal or the river embankment further north - just overflowed. And that would have been in Sindh, where it meets the northern Punjab. There's a major water barrier up there, but it's not clear if it was a man-made breach or a natural breach.

And what's clear here in this community of Shahdad Kot is that it's not in the river's path, as you said. And like many throughout Pakistan, it's been inundated nonetheless, causing confusion, mass exodus. The town is shuttered. There still seem to be people here, though, protecting their homes.

MONTAGNE: What do they have to do to build a levee as quickly as they have?

MCCARTHY: That was rather remarkable. The locals really mobilized very quickly with their hands and what machines they could muster. There's a lot to save here. I mean, we passed through waves of fertile and velvet green rice paddies.

The area is the rice growing center of Sindh. The town and the surrounding areas has some 200 rice factories doing all kinds of things - cleaning rice, packaging rice, marketing rice, exporting rice. So the stakes are huge for this community. And the citizens heard that the water was coming and they started to build a levee.

The road coming in, Renee, is actually the right side of the levee. You can reach out and touch it coming in here. It's about seven feet high. It's not so solid. It's concrete. And it's holding back torrents of water that have covered vast acreages, as I say, of rice fields, villages and settlements.

MONTAGNE: And does it look like it will hold?

MCCARTHY: Well, it's rudimentary, but so far so good. The water has reached just within a couple of feet of the top of this levee. So it is still touch and go. A member of the provincial government said the water was racing through here at some one million cubic feet per second. And he said, you know, they were used to water coming from the other side, from the mountains of Baluchistan next door, but not from this direction.

MONTAGNE: And villages in the surrounding area, what do you know about what's happening to them?

MCCARTHY: They're underwater. These outlying villages that were on basically the northern side of this levee cum road are totally inundated. There's rescue boats, but they're few and far between, that have gone to get those people who are stranded.

What we're witnessing here, Renee, is kind of a microcosm of what we've seen in vast stretches of Pakistan. That is to say, the government overwhelmed by the enormity of the disaster, people relying on themselves, they're rescuing each other, they're shoring up the levees together.

Here in Shahdad Kot, the local representative said he and his brother organized the local citizens to build this levee. Now, when I said to him, you know, there's something in the order of 1,800 camps throughout Sindh alone to help two million people, he said: That simply cannot be, in my district alone there's only one.

So you have members of the government themselves questioning the numbers that are being put out by the government in terms of what's being done to recover people and help them.

MONTAGNE: Well, we will be talking to you again, of course, in the coming hours and days. NPR's Julie McCarthy, thanks very much. Reporting from Shahdad Kot in southern Pakistan along a levee aiming to keep the floodwaters out.

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