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Pakistan floods head south after devastating trail

SUKKUR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Raging flood waters bore down on Sindh province, home to Pakistan’s biggest city and commercial hub Karachi, on Thursday after killing at least 1,600 people and leaving four million homeless to the north.

The floods were moving swiftly in north Sindh province and would reach the town of Sukkur by Saturday, meteorologist Hazrat Mir said.

Officials in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, scrambled to prevent loss of life and more destruction to the agriculture industry as the waters spread from the northwest to the Punjab farmlands then down to Sindh, engulfing entire villages.

“What we see is a sea of people in need,” said Manuel Bessler, head of the Pakistan office of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “We are afraid it will get worse before it gets better.”

The official death toll is more than 1,600 people and is expected to rise. More than four million have also lost their livelihoods and homes, officials said.

President Asif Ali Zardari faced criticism over the government’s handling of Pakistan’s worst flooding disaster in 80 years and his decision to travel abroad despite the catastrophe.

Zardari is already under pressure from ally the United States to bring political and economic stability to Pakistan and to ease a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, where U.S. and other foreign forces are involved.

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Near Sukkur, the situation looked desperate.

“There is nothing but just water all around us,” said a Reuters cameraman who traveled for several miles by boat with soldiers just southeast of Sukkur.

Children helped parents to set up shelters of plastic sheeting on a roadside as they waited for rescue or aid.

“I’ve lost my house, food. We have nothing. Nobody has come to us,” said villager Ali Nawaz.

About 350,000 people have been evacuated from low-lying areas of the Indus river basin in Sindh.

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In Sanawa village in Punjab, a crowd waited around a mosque, some waist-deep in muddy water, hoping for relief. A soldier carried an old man to a helicopter.

Authorities in Sindh said treacherous conditions were hampering evacuation efforts but villagers were reluctant to leave their homes.

Determining the overall costs of the floods will not be possible until authorities survey areas where the floods have swallowed up entire villages. But the disaster is likely to have a crippling effect on the economy.

Slideshow ( 22 images )

At least 1.3 million acres of crops have been destroyed in the Punjab agricultural heartland alone, relief officials said.

Huge agriculture losses would mean Pakistan will have to spend more to import cotton for its textile industry, as well as sugar, and will have less rice to export.

“The body of water going south is affecting a large area that is highly-densely populated. It is the food basket of Pakistan, so it will have long-term effects,” said Oscar Butragueno of the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

In Washington, the State Department said the United States had doubled its immediate relief assistance to $20 million. It had also sent in military helicopters, generators, water, temporary bridges and more than half a million halal meals.

Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz, Sahar Ahmed, Kamran Haider, Augustine Anthony, Editing by Angus MacSwan