Pakistan scrambled on Tuesday to widen a breach in its biggest lake to prevent it from overflowing amid unprecedented floods that have inundated a third of the South Asian nation, as the United Nations warned of more misery to come.
Flooding, brought by record monsoon rainfall and glacier melt in the north, has impacted 33 million people and killed at least 1,325, including 466 children, the national disaster agency said.
About 636,940 displaced people have been housed in tent villages, it said, adding the raging waters had swept away 1.6 million houses, 5,735 kilometres of roads, railways, 246 bridges, telecommunication systems, 750,000 livestock, and inundated over two million acre of farmland, destroying both standing and stored crops.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s Cabinet on Tuesday boosted funding for cash handouts for the 1.2 million most affected families to 70 billion Pakistani rupees ($315.32 million), his office said.
The agency told the Cabinet that 81 districts out of a total of 160 had badly been affected by the floods.
Reuters’ drone footage over Sindh province showed agricultural and residential areas completely submerged in water, with just the tops of trees and buildings visible.
Rice fields resembled massive lakes of several miles in diameter, aerial video footage by the Pakistani military showed.
Officials have estimated the economic cost of the losses at a minimum of $10 billion.
With more rain expected in the coming month, the situation could worsen, a top official of the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) warned.
“This will increase challenges for flood survivors, and likely worsen conditions for nearly half a million displaced people, forcing more to abandon their homes,” said Indrika Ratwatte, the agency’s director for Asia and the Pacific.
A key concern was the Manchar freshwater lake, the country’s largest, in Sindh province, which was close to bursting its banks.
“We have widened the earlier breach at Manchar to reduce the rising water level,” provincial irrigation minister Jam Khan Shoro told Reuters on Monday.
Already, 100,000 people have been displaced in efforts to keep the lake from overflowing, and hundreds of thousands more could be affected if it breaches its banks, authorities said.
The region already faces the dangers of water-borne and skin diseases, dengue fever, snake bites and breathing issues, Azra Fazal Pechuho, health minister for the southern province, told a news briefing.
She said 856,000 patients had been treated since flooding began in July, mostly from field and mobile hospitals.
“Over 1200 of our health facilities are under water,” she said, adding the field hospitals were receiving nearly 20,000 diarrhoea and 16,000 malaria cases daily.
The World Health Organization has said over 6.4 million people need humanitarian support in the flooded areas.
To help medicine stocks, Pechuho said, UNHCR aid had arrived.
The UNHCR is working with Pakistani authorities to step up humanitarian supplies, Ratwatte added. Three more UN relief flights arrived on Tuesday, the foreign ministry said.
Residents propping up dikes
“Till yesterday there was enormous pressure on the dikes of Johi and Mehar towns, but people are fighting it out by strengthening the dikes,” district official Murtaza Shah said on Tuesday, adding that 80% to 90% population of the towns had already fled.
The floods have turned the nearby town of Johi into a virtual island, as a dike built by locals holds back the water.
“After the breach at Manchar, the water has started to flow, earlier it was sort of stagnant,” one resident, Akbar Lashari, said by telephone, following Sunday’s initial breach of the lake.
Rising waters have also inundated the nearby Sehwan airport, civil aviation authorities said.
The floods have followed record-breaking summer heat. Pakistan and the United Nations both have blamed climate change for the extreme weather and resulting devastation.
Pakistan has received nearly 190% more rain than the 30-year average in July-August, totalling 390.7mm (15.38 inches), with the southern Sindh province getting 466% more rain than the average.