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Kashmir flood devastation becomes more apparent

Over half a million still marooned in Kashmir as floodwaters race down and threaten vast swathes in Pakistan
<p>(Photo courtesy of Save the Children)</p>

(Photo courtesy of Save the Children)

With floodwaters starting to recede in Kashmir and rescue operations being accelerated, the extent of the devastation is becoming clearer by the day. Military and civilian authorities have rescued over 90,000 people from their flooded homes, but over half a million people are still stranded – many without any food or drinking water for over four days.

Meanwhile the floodwaters are racing downstream in Pakistan, posing imminent danger to the Jhang area on the confluence of the Jhelum and Chenab rivers. Sindh is bracing to face the fury this coming weekend.

The floods in the transboundary Indus basin – that followed heavy rainfall between September 3 and 6 – have already killed around 200 people in India and a similar number in Pakistan. Authorities have evacuated over 18,000 people in Punjab and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Large swathes of Lahore, Sialkot, Gujranwala and other cities remain inundated.

In India, Srinagar and other parts of the Kashmir valley remain the worst affected, with the frustration of stranded residents starting to affect rescue operations. Two men with the National Disaster Response Force were attacked in Srinagar by residents who alleged that the authorities were giving preference to tourists when it came to rescue. Four helicopter landings had to be aborted as residents gathered below with the apparent intention of throwing stones at the aircraft. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had to make repeated appeals for calm and kept promising that everybody would be rescued.

However, some people did seem to be getting preference, among them a group of golfers from Pakistan, who were in the valley for a tournament and had been stranded.

Despite the aberrations, and despite the main road between Kashmir and the rest of India remaining unusable, the overall rescue effort gathered momentum, with food, water, tents and blankets being flown in all through the days and nights.

Realising that the vast majority of those stranded were yet to be rescued, the government called in helicopters from the navy and private companies to augment the 61 helicopters of the army and the air force that are already distributing food and water and rescuing people.

Along with the helicopters, over 250 boats were pressed into rescue work, but the authorities admitted they were short of boats, and were finding it difficult to fly in a sufficient number.

Television and internet channels were flooded with desperate pleas from relatives, as people perched on their rooftops still had no means of communication, nor was there any electricity supply in the Kashmir valley for the seventh day running.

As the floodwaters started receding from some of the higher parts of Srinagar, its level at the Dal Lake started to rise again. Water from the overflowing lake entered the grounds of the Hazratbal shrine, an important Muslim pilgrimage site.

Blame game in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the blame game has started even while vast swathes of the country remain inundated. Senior officials of the Federal Flood Commission (FFC), Pakistan Indus Water Commission (PIWC), Indus River System Authority (IRSA), National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the meteorological department had met on Tuesday to discuss the flood situation, but reportedly ended up blaming one another.

FFC officials criticised IRSA for issuing flood advisories throughout the day. In turn, the FFC was criticised for not updating the flood situation more than once a day.

As Punjab’s Jhang area braces for a major flood, the worry is that the Trimmu barrage where the Jhelum and Chenab meet cannot handle the 950,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water currently surging down the two rivers. The barrage was designed to hold a water flow of 700,000 cusecs.

Authorities are readying to demolish a protective dyke in Athara Hazari – if that becomes necessary to protect the barrage and the city of Jhang. The district administration has ordered evacuation of over 250,000 people in 260-plus villages across the Athara Hazari tehsil sub-division.

While the floodwaters race downstream and converge in the already-swollen Indus, the authorities in Sindh are expecting to face a flow of 800,000 to a million cusecs at the Sukkur barrage by Monday, according to IRSA officials.

The three barrages on the Indus in Sindh – Guddu, Sukkur and Kotri – can technically sustain the flow of more than 900,000 cusecs of water, but the protective embankments are not strong enough to withstand this pressure. They can, at the most, sustain 700,000 cusecs.

People living in the Indus floodplains in Sindh have been asked to evacuate their homes by Saturday.