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In Pakistan’s Record Floods, Villages Are Now Desperate Islands

DADU, Pakistan – The view from Muhammad Jaffar’s small mud house in southern Pakistan has always given him a sense of relief. A stone’s throw from his door, rolling fields of green cotton bushes had begun, their white flowers promising enough income for his family to survive the year.

Now his fields, along with other expanses of Pakistan, are under green, rotten water. About two weeks ago, in one of the latest rounds of record-shattering floods to hit the country since June, his country was completely submerged, including its drinking water source.

“We now live on an island,” Jaffar, 40, told visiting New York Times reporters on Tuesday.

The devastating floods have inundated hundreds of villages across much of Pakistan’s fertile land. In Sindh province to the south, floodwaters have effectively turned what was once farmland into two large lakes that have inundated entire villages and turned others into fragile islands. Pakistani officials say the floods are the worst to hit the country in recent history. They warn that it could take three to six months for the water to recede.

So far, about 1,500 people have died — nearly half of them children — and more than 33 million have been displaced from their homes in the flooding, triggered by heavier than usual monsoon rains and the melting of glaciers.

In the Dadu district, one of the hardest hit areas in southern Pakistan’s Sindh province, floodwaters have completely submerged about 300 villages and left dozens of others stranded. Across the county, about 40,000 square miles of land — about the size of the state of Virginia — is now under water, officials say.

Where farmers once worked fields of cotton and wheat, wooden motorboats now chug across the festering pond that transports people between towns saved from the flood and their stranded villages. Scattered across the water are some sandals, medicine bottles, and the bright blue books of elementary school students pouring out the windows of half-flooded schools.

Swarms of mosquitoes dance around the treetops sticking out of the water. High-voltage cables dangle dangerously close to the surface.

Tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed have been relocated to nearby towns and cities where they have found shelter in schools, public buildings, roadsides and canal embankments. They shelter in tents paved together with spare tarps and twine beds that they had salvaged before the flood came.

Of the lucky few whose villages were not completely submerged, many have remained in their homes – basically stranded. Pakistani authorities have urged people to leave the isolated villages, warning that if thousands remain, it could overwhelm already tense relief efforts, create widespread food insecurity and create a health crisis as diseases spread.

But the residents have their reasons for staying, they say: They must protect their precious valuables – surviving livestock, refrigerators and tin roofs – from thieves. The costs of renting a boat and moving their family and belongings are too high. The prospect of living in a tent camp is too bleak.

Yet their living conditions are deplorable. Malaria, dengue fever and waterborne diseases are widespread. The area has been hit by monsoon rains and heat waves since it was submerged. The government has cut power to the area – a security measure to prevent people from being electrocuted – and plunges the villages into darkness every night. Most villages have received no help, residents say.

“We have been abandoned, we just have to survive,” said Ali Nawaz, 59, a cotton farmer who lives in the village of Wado Khosa in Dadu.

The village of Wado Khosa is home to about 150 people who worked cotton fields for a large landowner – a feudal farming system common throughout Sindh. The cotton fields were almost ready to harvest, residents said, when one night about two weeks ago, water swelled over their fields.

When they came out of their homes at dawn, they were in awe. The village was completely surrounded by water that reached to the horizon.

“My mind was not working. I was thinking what we would do – the kids were sobbing,” said one resident, Nadia, 29, who like many women in rural Pakistan goes by one name.

Since that day, the water has receded about a foot, locals say. But life in the village that has turned into an island is hard to survive. Both of the village’s wells have been destroyed by the flood, so they have to drink salted water from a hand pump that they previously only used for washing clothes and dishes. Almost everyone in the village has malaria or typhoid, Nadia said.

Buying food is simply an achievement. The price of vegetables has tripled since the floods started, and Nadia’s family cannot afford to rent a boat to meet and take them to market in their remote village. So every few days her cousin, Faiz Ali, 18, swims for about 20 minutes through the rotten water along what was once a road, until he reaches a causeway and walks to the market in nearby Johi Town, which has survived the flooding.

After buying a small portion of potatoes, rice and vegetables, he fastens the small bags of food on his back, dives into the water and swims home. He tries to keep his head above the stinking lake to avoid ingesting the water and to keep an eye on the snakes that are now slithering across the surface.

“It’s tricky. I’m scared — I’m still scared every time I go,” he said.

Describing the depth of the water, he stood up and raised his hand about two feet above his head.

Their family is grateful that the city of Johi survived the worst floods. But they and their neighbors say they feel neglected by the government and relief efforts, and have finally saved themselves. As the floodwaters began to flow through the area, residents rushed to support the causeway around the city — filling pockets with rocks, sand, grass, and whatever else they could find.

Since then, the town has become an important stopover for residents of the nearby stranded villages. Boats making the 30-minute journey to Dadu City dock along the main road, where the water is a bit shallower.

Their hulls are full of people, motorcycles, cows and whole herds of goats that carried farmers to the safety of Dadu when the floods started and are now returning to their homes. Shopkeepers placed large solar panels in the sun at a storefront and offered to charge people’s phones for a small fee.

A young woman, Amira, 15, and her mother-in-law, Bali, got off a boat from Dadu town. Amira held her newborn baby. A few days earlier, she had given birth around midnight at the makeshift camp where she and her family lived near the town of Johi after their village was completely submerged in the flooding.

They managed to find a rickshaw to take her to Johi and then tracked down a boat to take her to the hospital in Dadu City, where she gave birth by cesarean section. Now Amira trudged through the ankle-deep water, through the slippery mud and onto a patch of dry land as she and her family tried to find their way to a temporary mountain home.

Most residents say they have received little or no help from international aid organizations or the government. Every now and then a boat will arrive at the isolated villages with rice and tea from local non-profit organizations. But most days they just keep watch and wait, praying for help to come.

In another stranded village nearby, Munir Ahmad, 25, was sitting on a rope bed in the living room of his tiny house—the floor was now caked in a thick, sticky mud from water splashing through the door. His remaining livestock — six goats, a cow and a few chickens — stood at one end of the room, while his 10-year-old sister, Bakhtawar, cooked roti bread over an open fire.

Days earlier, his 5-year-old son became ill with a high fever, and Mr. Ahmad managed to stop a passing boat to take the boy and his wife to the hospital in Dadu City. Now his mother and two younger sisters are both sick, they say, either from the swarms of mosquitoes that infest them every night or from the drinking water they get from a nearby pump.

“Even the goats are sick,” he said.

Still, he says, he and his family want to stay in their home as long as it’s there.

“I don’t want to live in the tents,” he said. “Home is home.”