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Bangladesh Capital Fights Off Flood

September 9, 1998

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) _ Soldiers and residents used rocks and sandbags to plug dozens of breaches Wednesday in a 22-mile dike protecting the capital of Bangladesh from the swollen Buriganga River.

At least 36 leaks were discovered early Wednesday, prompting authorities to ask for help over loudspeakers in mosques around the region.

The intense, day-long effort to plug the leaks was successful, said Abul Kashem, an engineer at the state-run Water Development Board.

``The situation is now under control,″ he said.

Earlier, disaster management officials had prepared to evacuate 600,000 people living near Dhaka, fearing that the earthen structure that encircles a large area south and east of the capital might give way.

The Flood Forecasting and Warning Center had predicted that the dike, built in 1952, could collapse sometime Wednesday and raise water levels by at least two feet. That would have been a disaster, for half the capital of 9 million people already is under at least knee-deep water.

Some people with homes near the embankment fled.

``We have passed many sleepless nights fearing that the embankment will give in,″ said Shireen Akhter, who moved with four children to a relative’s house in Dhaka.

Flood waters have submerged much of this delta nation, roughly the size of Wisconsin. The deluge has claimed more than 800 lives and displaced more than a quarter of the country’s 124 million people.

The flooding also has increased the spread of waterborne diseases and destroyed an estimated 2.3 million tons of rice.

The government has asked for $889 million in foreign aid _ but has only received pledges totaling $104 million. The U.N. World Food Program has diverted an aid ship with 15,000 tons of wheat from Africa to Bangladesh and it was expected to arrive next week.

``There will be no shortage of food,″ Finance Minister Shah Mohammad Kibria told reporters Tuesday after another round of meeting with foreign donors. ``The donors’ response to our need is satisfactory.″

Tens of thousands of farmers have lost their crops, and it is too late for them to replant.

``We had hoped to start replanting the crops if the waters receded by mid-September. With waters still rising, that hope is gone,″ said Mohammad Kalam, a 55-year-old farmer.

Last year, Kalam harvested nearly a ton of rice from his small piece of land, enough to feed his family of five, meet farming costs and buy clothing.

Now, the family is living on handouts from relief workers. If that runs out, he has enough of his own rice to last three months.

Kalam and his neighbors have been living on a dirt road since last month, when the country’s overflowing rivers began inundating villages.

In another development Wednesday, at least 25 people were feared drowned when a boat evacuating them from their flooded village sank in Padma River, 40 miles west of Dhaka, police said. Eight others were rescued by local fishermen.

Update hourly