Deluged Bangladesh awaits flow of aid. As flood waters slowly recede, extent of damage becomes clearer

Submerged Bangladesh restored its vital air lifeline Thursday as international donors were poised to channel millions of dollars of aid to the flood-ravaged nation. The government announced that the flooded international airport in the capital, Dacca, could handle arrivals of large aircraft.

And officials predicted that medicine and other relief supplies would soon begin flowing into this largely Muslim country of 108 million, which has been deluged for more than a week by the worst flood in recent memory.

At the same time, the government faces an uphill struggle to distribute the food and medical supplies to the two-thirds of the country which remain under water, diplomats say.

As flood waters begin to recede, about one-quarter of the population is homeless. And cholera and other diseases are spreading rapidly, health officials say.

``While the waters came very fast, they are receding very slowly,'' Information Minister Mahbubur Rahman said at a press conference.

``This year's flood was unprecedented. It really has, according to us, no definition and no description,'' Mr. Rahman said.

Bangladesh has already received pledges of more than $50 million in international aid to cope with the crisis, government officials said, including $13 million from Japan, $10 million from Turkey and $3.6 million from the United States.

That amount is in addition to more than $2 billion in annual foreign assistance which keeps the economy of this impoverished nation afloat.

Information Minister Rahman said that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar had more than 20 aircraft loaded with relief supplies and waiting to fly into Dacca, which has been cut off from the rest of the nation.

So far, according to the government's count, more than 500 people have died in boat accidents, or when their houses were swept away, or from snake bites. Diplomats and nongovernment sources say, however, that those estimates are far too conservative.

The Health Ministry says more than 150,000 cases of diarrhea have been reported, and relief workers say water purification tablets and medicines are in short supply.

Factories that manufacture rehydration medication remained under water, and were unable to respond to the demands from relief agencies.

Officials report that waters are beginning to pull back in some areas as the flood crest moves south, toward the Bay of Bengal. At places in the north of the country, levels of the large Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Meghna rivers are rising, causing concerns about new flooding, diplomats say.

That could make it tough to reach hundreds of thousands of people already stranded on railroad tracks, rooftops, and other scarce high points in this low-lying land.

The government says it has 1.4 million tons of food - about a two-month supply - waiting to be distributed.

But with roads and bridges devastated and communication links cut throughout much of the country, food distribution will be difficult for several weeks, diplomats estimated. That has raised fears of widespread famine, since more than half of the country's crops have been washed away.

In Dacca, water levels were dropping, and the central business district, isolated from the rest of the city earlier this week, was slowly returning to normal.

In a downtown office building, several families had spent the week sleeping on the floors as their homes were inundated with water.

``We expect to be here for many more days. Our home is full of water, and we don't know when we can return,'' said a young woman huddled on the floor with her three children.

Many streets in this city of 6 million yesterday served as waterways for makeshift boats ferrying people to work, to markets, and to relief centers.

A list of agencies accepting donations for Bangladesh flood relief can be found on Page 4 of this issue.

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