Cholera is found in flood-ravaged Pakistan

20 million affected by inundation

Flood victims fought over food relief distributed by volunteers in Sukkar, Pakistan. A surge of flood water swelled the Indus River, threatening some previously spared cities and towns. Flood victims fought over food relief distributed by volunteers in Sukkar, Pakistan. A surge of flood water swelled the Indus River, threatening some previously spared cities and towns. (Shakil Adil/ Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post / August 15, 2010

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The United Nations confirmed the first cholera case among survivors of the Pakistan flooding yesterday, and the government sharply increased its estimate of the number of people affected by the catastrophic floods to 20 million.

UN officials said 6 million of those victims lack access to food, shelter, and water.

The floods, which continue to inundate new parts of the country, have caused a humanitarian disaster that has overwhelmed the capacity of both the government and international aid groups. Foreign assistance has been slow in arriving and aid organizations warn that many more deaths could follow unless flood victims receive help soon.

As people go without access to clean drinking water and basic health services, deadly cholera outbreaks can spread quickly. More cases are suspected among the tens of thousands of people with diarrhea and fever.

Revising an earlier official estimate that 14 million people were affected by the floods, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said that 20 million, nearly 12 percent of the population, had been displaced.

About 1,600 people have died during the floods, which began nearly three weeks ago, and aid workers warned that waterborne disease could sharply increase that number.

A new surge of flood water swelled the Indus River yesterday, threatening previously spared cities and towns in the south. The Indus was already more than 15 miles wide at some points Friday, 25 times wider than during normal monsoon seasons.

Authorities were trying to evacuate or warn people in Jacobabad, Hyderabad, Thatta, Ghotki, Larkana, and other areas in Sindh Province that so far have been spared floods.

Because of the flooding, Pakistan canceled celebrations yesterday marking its creation and independence from Britain in 1947. President Asif Ali Zardari met with flood victims in the northwest, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was expected to visit today.

One case of cholera was confirmed in Mingora, the main town in the northwest’s Swat Valley, UN spokesman Maurizio Giuliano said. Cholera can lead to severe dehydration and death without prompt treatment.

The crisis began in late July, when unusually heavy monsoon rains tore through the country from its mountainous northwest. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been destroyed. Agriculture has been severely hit, with an estimated 1.7 million acres of farmland wiped out.

The UN has appealed for an initial $460 million to provide relief to Pakistan but has said the country will need billions to rebuild once the flood waters recede.

The United States has committed at least $76 million, and two additional US Navy helicopters arrived yesterday to assist with the distribution of food. In all, 19 US helicopters have been ordered into Pakistan.

The crisis has battered Pakistan’s economy and undermined its political stability when the United States needs its steadfast cooperation against Islamist extremism.

“If not managed, the dislocation of such a large number of people who have been deprived of their homes and livelihood, coupled with the destruction of vast chunks of largely agricultural territory along the country’s core Indus River region, can easily translate into massive social unrest,’’ the analytical firm Stratfor said in an assessment.

The nation has already been racked by a bloody insurgency by Taliban fighters who object to Pakistan’s alliance with the United States in the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

With the Pakistani Army taking the most prominent role in the government’s relief efforts, concern has grown in Washington that the flood will detract from the country’s battle against Islamic militants.

Pakistani troops have waged relatively successful offensives over the past year and a half in the Swat Valley and in South Waziristan, but those gains could be undermined as the army’s attention shifts.

The United States had been pressing Pakistan to launch an offensive in North Waziristan, where Al Qaeda and several major Taliban groups are active. Pakistan has been reluctant to go in, and now the floods make it even less likely that its generals will open another front.

“The army still needs time to recover’’ from South Waziristan and Swat, said a Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said that a possible offensive in North Waziristan had been discussed for the fall, but that now, “I don’t foresee it.’’

Pakistani military officials insist that the floods will not take away from counterinsurgency operations and that the civilian government will be primarily responsible for rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by the floods.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report. top stories on Twitter

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