Relatives and family members gather around the body of a woman covered by a white sheet, who died of illness while taking refuge at an army camp in Sukkur. Image Credit: Reuters

Sukkur: Tauda, a mother of four, fell sick with stomach cramps and diarrhoea in a camp for flood victims on Tuesday. Less than 14 hours later, she died.

"We think it was because of the water," said her brother, Mohammad Hashim, as he prepared to bury her yesterday.

With some six million people made homeless by Pakistan's floods, many of them living in appalling conditions, fears are growing that many could die from sickness and hunger.

Disease risk

The government has warned of the spread of epidemics, and particularly of the risk of water-borne diseases.

Tauda had been living in one of the better camps that have sprung up around Sukkur, the main city in Sindh province's rice-growing belt, much of which is under water.

The camp, run by the army, is set out on flat land next to a highway overpass. Tents are neatly pegged out in rows and food is provided twice a day. Water is also provided.

When Tauda became sick, army medics told her family to take her to a government hospital in the city.

But doctors could not save her.

"After 12 or 14 hours she was dead," said Hashim, standing outside a tent where his sister's body was being washed before burial. He added that one of her children had died earlier.

The floods, triggered by unusually heavy monsoon downpours over the upper Indus river basin, are Pakistan's worst natural disaster in terms of the extend of damage caused and the number of people affected.

So far, only about 1,600 people have been killed, a relatively low number for a calamity of this scale, but the death toll is expected to rise.

Making do

At the camp, women made tea on fires outside their tents, while a man sat to give a boy a haircut. The camp, home to nearly 4,000 people, even has blocks of electric plugs hooked up to pylons for people to charge mobile telephones.

Before funeral prayers were said for Tauda, an army truck hosed down the main camp road to keep down the dust, to the delight of a gaggle of children who played in the spray.

Camp medic Dr Ehsan said gastrointestinal afflictions were the main problem, although in general, the health of the people was better than when the camp opened.

There had been two deaths, including Tauda, and no confirmed case of cholera, he said. He did not know the cause of Tauda's death. "The total number of patients has decreased," he added. But some people appeared to be very sick.

In a tent not far from where the dead woman lay, a boy with sunken eyes was sitting on a mat vomiting almost clear liquid while his father propped him up.

The boy's uncle showed two bottles of medicine that camp medics had provided, one of which was for treatment of malaria. Difficult as conditions might be here, they are far better than the grim existence facing many of the displaced who have not been able to get into an organised camp.

All around the outskirts of Sukkur displaced people cluster in settlements on waste ground beside roads, sleeping on rope beds with their livestock around them and relying on occasional hand-outs of food from charity groups.

"We've tried many times to go to a camp but they said there was no room," said Mir Dino at a settlement next to a highway toll booth.