SUKKUR, PAKISTAN (AP) - Suhani Bunglani fans flies away from her two baby girls as one sleeps motionless while the other stares without blinking at the roof of their tent, her empty belly bulging beneath a green flowered shirt.
Their newborn sister already died on the ground inside this steamy shelter at just 4 days old, after the family’s escape from violent floods that drowned a huge swath of Pakistan. Now the girls, ages 1 and 2, are slowly starving, with shriveled arms and legs as fragile as twigs.
More than 100,000 children left homeless by Pakistan’s floods are in danger of dying because they simply do not have enough to eat, according to UNICEF. Children already weak from living on too little food in poor rural areas before the floods are fighting to stay alive, as diarrhea, respiratory diseases and malaria attack their emaciated bodies.
Doctors roaming the 100-degree (38-degree Celsius) camp that reeks of urine and animal manure have warned Bunglani three times to take her children to the hospital, or they will die.
The mother says she knows they need help, but she cannot leave the tent without her husband’s consent. She must stay until he returns, even if it means risking her daughters’ lives.
“I am waiting for my husband,” she says, still fanning flies from the sweating babies. “He is coming.”
The floodwaters that began swamping a section of Pakistan larger than Florida six weeks ago continue to inundate new areas, forcing even more people to flee. At least 18 million have already been affected, and nearly half of them are homeless. Many have been herded into crude, crowded camps or left to fend for themselves along roads.
But doctors warn the real catastrophe is moving much slower than the murky water. About 105,000 kids younger than 5 are at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition over the next six months, UNICEF estimates.
“You’re seeing children who were probably very close to the brink of being malnourished, and the emergency has just pushed them over the edge,” says Erin Boyd, a UNICEF emergency nutritionist working in southern Pakistan. “There’s just not the capacity to treat this level of severe acute malnutrition.”
The U.N.’s World Food Program alone has fed more than 4 million people since the crisis began, distributing monthly rations that include nutrition-packed foods for children. But the sheer geographic and human scale of the disaster is overwhelming, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called it the worst he has ever seen.
Even now, after the water has receded in many areas, some families who refused to abandon their villages remain marooned on islands cut off from all transport. The lucky ones sprint and dive for supplies dropped by choppers hovering above. But not everyone is being reached.
Inside the government-run Railway Hospital in the southern town of Sukkur, deep in Pakistan’s agriculture bread basket, the aid group Doctors Without Borders has already converted one ward into an inpatient feeding center. Some babies weighing a fraction of what’s normal wail and gasp on diarrhea-stained sheets, while others wince quietly as if trying to find the strength to cry. Some little cheeks are sunken in. Others have hollow eyes or bottoms that are merely bones covered by folds of scaly, wrinkled skin.
Their mothers sit on the beds beside them, spoon-feeding milk and pinches of Plumpy’nut, the sweet peanut butter-based nutritional paste dubbed ‘chocolate’ by the ward’s doctors. Many of the women are unable to produce breast milk because they are weak and ill themselves. Some are already pregnant again in an area where illiteracy is high and girls often marry at 12 or 13 and produce back-to-back babies for years to come. Death, especially among newborns, is expected here, where even before the floods a quarter of babies were born underweight.
Janat Khosa’s 3-year-old grandson is one of the worst cases in the ward, with chopstick-thin arms and legs, along with suspected tuberculosis complicating his recovery.