This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center
After several attempts, Zameer Ali, his son and his brother were finally heaved on to the deck of a wooden boat.
Early that morning, the exhausted 48-year-old had waded out of his home with his relatives near the city of Khairpur Nathan Shah in Pakistan’s Sindh province to look for their livestock. As the water around them got deeper, they were forced to swim for six hours, using a bamboo stick for support, and had tired quickly.
“We held on to the electricity tower and waited for someone to help,” Ali said from onboard the boat. “We screamed our hearts out for help … When no one stopped to help, I felt we would die.”
This area of Sindh’s Dadu district is indistinguishable from a lake, with water stretching as far as the eye can see. His house, like hundreds of thousands of houses in the area, has been submerged.
Between 5% and 10% of the city’s population of 350,000 are still stuck in their flooded homes. Those who can, travel around by boat. Others swim in the flood waters with a stick to get about. Sewage and flood waters have mixed to a dirty green. Interviews with local people painted a picture of a disaster on a scale that the government and NGOs were unable to cope with.
Torrential monsoon rains that began in mid-June have devastated much of the country, washing away bridges, roads, livestock and people. One-third of Pakistan is underwater, more than 1,250 people have been killed, and more than 35 million people are affected in some way.
Dadu and neighbouring Qambar Shahdadkot are the worst-affected districts in the Sindh province, itself the worst-hit province. Flood water inundates roads for miles, making many towns inaccessible. Displaced people live in tents and makeshift homes on roadsides.
There is a common lament in Dadu that the breaching of Lake Manchar, the country’s largest freshwater lake, on Sunday to lower water levels in the district should have happened days ago, and for waters to be diverted from Dadu to the lake and from there to the sea.
As the boat that rescued Ali approached the main bazaar in Khairpur Nathan Shah, Khalid Hussain – a young man with a bamboo stick in hand and his belongings on his head – approached and started talking. He said there were no evacuation facilities for poor people, and no aid.
“Yesterday, along with my ailing father, we stood in this corner of the city for three hours but the rescue team did not help my father or provide him with anything,” he said. “We had to rent a boat and send my father to a nearby hospital for treatment. The entire city is drowned with people inside their houses. No one from the government has come to help us.”
Another local man, Khadim Hussain, said authorities “consider us as insects”. “We are stranded. We lost all our belongings. We need food, medicine and help,” he said.
Faisal Edhi, the head of the Edhi foundation charity, said that despite a great deal of effort made by the foundation, the government and other NGOs, they had collectively managed to reach just 10% or less of affected people. “People who survived the floods may die of starvation,” he warned.
Many towns have been inaccessible and the Indus highway is flooded.
Saifullah Chandio, a medical student, said she had tried to set up a first aid camp to help people suffering from waterborne diseases, but was unable to access financial support and medicines. “We will see another crisis soon as people are falling sick,” Chandio said.
An hour from Khairpur Nathan Shah, the boat came to Superio embankment, where more than 2,000 people from the flooded village of Nurang Chandio had taken refuge.
Allah Baksh Chandio (no relation of Saifullah Chandio) said villagers had escaped in pitch darkness on the night of 28 August, carrying whatever few belongings they could manage on their shoulders. Some had food, but most did not.
“I felt like my heart was going to explode,” Chandio said. “All I could hear was people crying due to helplessness. The children had no idea what was happening and were crying too.”
Manzoor Ali, also from Nurang Chandio, said villagers had built the tents and makeshift houses on their own. “We are running out of food,” he said. “We eat once a day. My daughter, who is just two years old, has a recurrent high fever and there are no medical facilities here.”
Holding her son close to her, Ghulam e Kubra said: “There is nothing for us. Children are falling sick and we are helpless. We don’t have clean drinking water, food and medicine. We don’t know what to do with our lives.”
When the boat’s driver said it was time to leave, Ali Baksh, a farmer, came and pointed his fingers towards the flood water, where crops of rice and wheat had been cultivated but been buried and washed away.
“There was no rain a few months back and there was a severe shortage of water for crops,” he said. “We prayed for rain. But when it rained, we became homeless and our crops were destroyed. We have nothing left.”