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Pakistan under water: The view from 438 miles above Earth

Every day, stunning new figures about the humanitarian crisis wrought by the devastating floods in Pakistan are made public: Four million homeless. Eight million in need of aid. A fifth of the country under water. Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations, called the numbers “mind-blowing.”

And the fallout could endure for years. As Dan Feldman, the State Department’s deputy special envoy to the region, explained in a briefing earlier this week: “We’ve seen reports of food prices quadrupling at this point, hundreds of roads and bridges washed out, the current agricultural crop being destroyed without the ability to plant for next year, and the situation has not yet crested, both literally and figuratively.”

Still, the geographical scope of the havoc can be hard to fathom. On Thursday, NASA’s Earth Observatory released images of one especially hard-hit region of Pakistan from before and after the monsoons, captured by the space agency’s Landsat 5 satellite, about 438 miles above the Earth. Even these pictures provide only a glimpse of the overall crisis. But for those of us who have trouble imagining just how widespread the flooding is, they are quite compelling.

The first photo shows the Indus River and surrounding valley on August 9, 2009. The fertile banks along the river are prime farmland, and the river itself is the 21st largest in the world in terms of total flow. It originates in the Tibetan Plateau in Central Asia, a vast region of ice and glaciers that feed the river, and flows into the Arabian Sea along the southern coast of Pakistan.

Scientists have warned that climate change could endanger the river by melting the glaciers and depriving it of one of its central water sources. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to endorse that view on Thursday, telling a Pakistani television reporter in New York: “I think that there is a linkage. You can’t point to any particular disaster and say, ‘it was caused by…’ But we are changing the climate of the world.”

The second photo shows the swelling of the Indus just after the first monsoons, on August 12. The rains had already overwhelmed the Indus valley region in northern Pakistan. But by this time, the floods had also traveled downstream into the southern part of the country. This image was acquired just before the second wave of the floods hit the region.

In the bottom left corner of the image, the river is pinched by the Guddu Barrage, a C-shaped barrier constructed to facilitate irrigation in nearby Sindh province. The city of Khewali in the northwest region of that province — just above the Guddu Barrage — has been subsumed almost entirely by flood water. As the Earth Observatory explains: “Even before the second wave reached this section of the Indus, floods covered much of the city of Khewali and the surrounding farmland. The flood-widened river is muddy and brown in the top image, and it impinges on the cement-gray town of Khewali.”

Visualizing the extent to which the swelling of the Indus has swamped the surrounding farmland makes it easier, perhaps, to put the statistics in context. The Pakistani government has said that nearly 20 million people have been affected by the damage caused by the floods. Eighty percent of those victims, according to the Earth Observatory, are farmers whose cattle and crops — and, in turn, their livelihoods — have been washed away.

In a joint press conference with Ban and the president of the U.N. general assembly, Ali Treki of Libya, Clinton warned that the sweep of the tragedy would only grow larger in the coming days.

“This flooding has already affected more people than the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake combined,” Clinton said. “And as we meet, we fear that a new wave of water may be about to sweep through areas that have already been devastated and reach to those yet untouched.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The first photo of the Indus River, taken before the flooding began, was acquired on August 9, 2009, not 2010.

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