Pakistanis outraged at landowners suspected of diverting floodwaters to save property

SUKKUR, Pakistan (AP) — As the disastrous floods recede in Pakistan, something new is rising: suspicions and rumors that powerful officials and landowners used their influence to divert water away from their property and inundate the villages and fields of millions of poor Pakistanis.

The claims are difficult to verify and in some cases may be exaggerated. Yet they have spread like wildfire across the waterlogged countryside, further outraging many flood victims already upset at the government's failure to provide enough food, clean water and shelter.

One of the risks is that Islamist militants could seize on growing anger to increase support for their war against the state. Even before the floods, many Pakistanis harbored a deep mistrust toward their government and the landowning elite.

"The politicians and the rich and powerful just sacrificed the people," said 30-year-old farmer Mohammed Yousuf, who lost his home and 11 cattle last month when floodwaters surging down the Indus River swept across southern Sindh province.

The floods, which were triggered by extremely heavy monsoon rains in the northwest at the end of July, have killed more than 1,600 people across Pakistan and affected some 17 million others. At its peak, the flood covered one-fifth of the country — an area larger than England.

Many people suspect powerful Pakistanis were able to manipulate the flow of water by influencing which levees were breached. Levees are tall dirt and rock embankments meant to prevent a river from overflowing and can be intentionally breached using explosives or heavy machinery.

It was impossible to verify the validity of the different accusations, but it was clear that many of the allegations were being leveled at the powerful by the largely powerless.

Outrage has been especially pronounced in northern Sindh where hundreds of thousands of people — including Yousuf — watched floods swamp their fields and destroy their homes as the lands of a federal minister on the opposite side of the Indus remained dry.

Many of these flood victims are convinced Labor Minister Khursheed Shah pushed the government to deliberately breach a levee upriver to save his property. The water that surged through the Tori Bund levee inundated dozens of villages and towns west of the river, an area that is more densely populated than the eastern side, where Shah's lands are located.

"Khursheed Shah is a tyrant!" shouted Masood Ahmed, a 25-year-old vegetable vendor in Karampur, a town near the western bank of the Indus that was entirely surrounded by water. "He is the enemy of humanity!"

The labor minister denied any wrongdoing and Sindh Irrigation Minister Jam Saifullah Dharejo has said Tori Bund was not breached by the government but ruptured when water flowing down the Indus surged unexpectedly.

Residents said they were unprepared for the sudden influx of water because they had assumed authorities would breach the Ali Wan levee on the eastern bank just as they had done when floods threatened the area in 1976 — a move they accused Shah of opposing.

"I had to choose between saving my family or my cattle," said Shafi Mohammed, 30, sitting beneath a makeshift shelter beside a road near Karampur. He rescued his wife and six children but lost his home, most of his possessions and two of his five water buffalo.

Noor Mohammad Baloch, an engineer and former chairman of Pakistan's Indus River System Authority, supported the government's explanation of the Tori Bund breach and said it reduced the water pressure enough so that the Ali Wan levee could remain intact.

But flood victims dismissed the explanation and demanded an independent investigation.

There was more controversy as high water headed farther west. Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a former prime minister, criticized members of the Sindh government for breaching a levee to divert water toward Baluchistan, Pakistan's poorest province.

The decision saved the city of Jacobabad, with about 300,000 residents, and a nearby air base, but it swamped homes and fields of 1 million people in Baluchistan.

"If it's a national calamity, we bow down our heads in front of the almighty, but if it is mismanagement, let an inquiry be held," said Jamali.

Farther north, lawmaker Jamshed Dasti from Muzaffargargh district in central Punjab province accused two powerful landowning families — the Khosas and the Hanjras — of persuading authorities not to breach levees on the western side of the Indus that would have swamped their property.

As a result, water broke through a levee on the eastern side of the river and inundated much of Muzaffargargh, a more densely populated area of some 3 million people, he said.

"They wouldn't care even if thousands of people had died," said Dasti, who is seen as a champion of the poor in a district dominated by landowners. "Their only interest is to secure their lands. They treat common people as animals."

Ali Ahmad, a farmer in the town of Sanawan in Muzaffargargh, said the flooding caught people by surprise because everyone expected the water to be directed to the western side of the river.

"But one morning at around 5 a.m. we woke up to a chaotic situation," Ahmad said. "There was water everywhere and we had to run to safety."

The two landowning families have denied Dasti's allegations, saying the decision about which levees should be breached was a technical matter that was decided independently by the government.

The provincial government has ordered the Lahore High Court to investigate, but Dasti has little faith in a fair outcome since one of the members of the Khosa family is an adviser to the chief minister of Punjab.

"The landlords," he said, "did this crime in connivance with government officials, who are like their personal servants."


Associated Press writers Khalid Tanveer in Muzaffargargh and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.

(This version CORRECTS in the 17th paragraph that Jacobabad city has a population of 300,000, instead of 30,000)