Massive Pakistani floods shape an archipelago of misery, even where the sun is shining

SHIKARPUR, Pakistan (AP) — The water came in the morning, quietly sweeping across the rice paddies and into the village. Within hours, it was as high as a man's shoulder and Abdul Nabi had lost his harvest, his mud home and all 10 of his buffalo.

It had barely been raining at all.

Weeks after massive downpours first battered northern Pakistan, submerging tens of thousands of square miles, killing about 1,500 people and leaving millions homeless, those floodwaters are still sweeping downriver and through the south, adding one more layer of misery to people long accustomed to hardship.

"This is the fate of the country," said another flood victim, a bitterly angry man named Habib Ullah. "It is the bad luck of Pakistan."

Pakistanis have lived through a deeply corrupt political establishment, a long history of military coups, a bloody Islamist insurgency and widespread poverty. Up to a third of its 170 million people live in poverty. Six years ago, entire towns in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir were leveled by an earthquake that killed 80,000 people.

Now, after years of low rainfall that had left many farmers struggling at the edge of financial survival, they face the worst floods in generations.

"It's not just the scale (of the floods), it's the depth as well," said Arif Jabbar Khan, the humanitarian operations manager for the aid group Oxfam Pakistan. "People have lost most, if not all, of their assets. People save all their life, and now it's all gone."

Nabi understands that kind of loss.

"I have seen floods before. We had them in the 1970s. But I have never seen anything like this," said Nabi, 63, a thin, bearded man whose wrinkled face reflects his many years working in his fields.

Behind him, nearly 50 members of his extended family — with their mattresses, bicycles, battered metal trunks, cooking pots, plastic buckets and a couple of electric fans — were piled onto a trailer pulled by a farm tractor. The family had spent the past three days sleeping in the open in Shikarpur, a town now inundated with people who had fled the floods. Now, they were headed to a larger city hoping for help.

He'd been lucky that day — he'd managed to grab a 22-pound (10-kilogram) bag of flour when an aid group drove through town throwing bags of food to a seething crowd — but he seemed stunned at how little help he'd received.

"Nothing. I got nothing from the government. We saw these big vehicles with officials driving past, but they didn't stop. They didn't even give us a hand," he said.

More than anything, though, he was worried most about his buffalo. He supports dozens of people with his small rice farm. The buffalo are — were — his most valuable possession.

"Maybe they swam, maybe they drowned. I don't know. But either way they are gone," he said, looking as if he was about to cry.

It's a look that has become commonplace across the flood zone, an area larger than England.

Seen from the air, a huge swath of Pakistan has become an archipelago of misery, a vast lake of brown water dotted with islands of high land. Some of the islands are small stretches of road that now come from nowhere and go nowhere. Some are marked by the husks of ruined mud homes, or small concrete buildings with collapsed walls.

A few still have people on them: either those waiting to be saved or those who have refused to leave.

Most of the people living in the flood zone are villagers who have little they can afford lose. Thousands have stayed close to what is left of their homes to protect what they can from bandits and water.

A few miles from where Nabi was preparing to leave, Ullah — the angry man lamenting Pakistan's fate — rested in the shade of a rusted train car. A few hundred yards ahead, the railroad tracks lolled into floodwaters. The sun was unrelenting, with temperatures well into the 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius) and the humidity so thick it felt like you could drink the air. The train, loaded with broken rocks, was too hot to touch.

Ullah had waited as water began surrounding the city of Jacobabad, where he works as a laborer for a soft drink distributor. When the trains were still running, he sent his wife and children away to stay with relatives. He doesn't own much except for a bed, some clothing and a fan, but he was worried to leave it behind. But when all the roads to the city were cut by the floodwaters and the price of drinking water had doubled, he left his valuables with his brother and began to walk.

He had come nearly 25 miles that day, often wading through water up to his chest. It was, he said, a dangerous trip. Snakes are common sights as they slither through the water, as are paddling rats.

Ullah has long been accustomed to difficulty. The 50-year-old supports a wife and five children on the $60 he earns each month hauling crates of soft drinks. But the floods were just too much.

"There is no government help," he said, practically spitting out the words. "There is no food, there is no water."

Very often, there is also no useful information. When villagers do receive news, often from radio reports, it's often mystifyingly specific: exactly how many cubic centimeters of water are flowing over a particular dam; how much rain fell in one northern district; which government VIPs has visited which flooded districts.

The information that might help — like where flood waters could go after breaching a riverbank — are left unsaid. It took days, for instance, for water to travel from a breach in the swollen Indus River to Nabi's home village, Jagan.

But when the burst river began cutting a new course through Sindh province, no one thought to warn the hundreds of villages in its path.

"We heard that the river had flooded, but we never thought it could reach our village," said Nabi. "We didn't even know we were in danger."