CHOLERA surfaced in Pakistan yesterday as the estimate of people made homeless by flooding climbed to 20 million.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon landed in a Pakistan Air Force jet at Chaklala air base yesterday morning, local time, for talks with President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and to visit the affected areas.

“I’m here also to urge the world community to speed up their assistance to the Pakistani people,” he said. “Remember that the whole world is behind the people of Pakistan in this time of trial.”  The floods that have devastated the subcontinent are believed to have killed close to 1600 people in Pakistan and at least 130 in India’s Himalayan district of Ladakh.

Pakistani officials said yesterday that the floods were now “on par” with the devastating 2005 Kashmir earthquake that killed about 79,000 people.  Officials estimate that a quarter of Pakistan has been affected by the flooding. Ten days of monsoonal rains have obliterated billions of dollars worth of buildings, infrastructure and crops in a nation already struggling with a raging militant insurgency and economic downturn.

UN agencies and aid groups say the response to the international appeal has been sluggish, warning of a second wave of death from disease, with at least six million now dependent on humanitarian assistance to survive.  One case of cholera was confirmed in Mingora, the main town in the northwest’s Swat Valley, and other cases were expected, UN spokesman Maurizio Giuliano said yesterday. Cholera kills swiftly without treatment and containing outbreaks is considered a high priority following floods.

And yet the worst of the weather could still be to come. Meteorologists have forecast more heavy rains for the northwest regions of Peshawar and Swat, as well as the agriculturally important southern regions of Punjab and Sindh.  In India, troops and rescue teams continued to search through piles of rubble and mudslides in remote regions of Ladakh for people feared trapped in flash floods that hit on Friday.

About 500 people were still missing yesterday, including seven Australian tourists.

The Australian high commission in New Delhi said it was still trying to contact five Australians who had registered their intention to travel into the region with the federal government’s Smart Traveller website, and a further two known to be in or around the main city of Leh at the time.

“We have no particular concerns; telephone communication to the area is difficult right now but until contact is made, their status is unknown,” a spokesman said yesterday.  Rains continued to soak Pakistan yesterday, grounding rescue helicopters and emergency aid supply drops.

With Pakistani troops and aid workers struggling to cope with the mounting misery across the country, Mr Gilani issued a public plea to the international community to “support and help Pakistan alleviate the sufferings of its flood-affected people”.

“The next two days are very critical,” he said.  “Our top priority is to rescue people to save their lives but we will also provide them all facilities, and we will work for their rehabilitation.”  The US has already redeployed troops, four Chinook and two Blackhawk helicopters from operations in Afghanistan to help in the relief effort, and pledged millions of dollars in emergency aid.

But even as more than 100,000 residents were evacuated from low-lying areas in Sindh at “imminent and extreme” risk from rising river waters and dam breaches at the weekend, many thousands more remained stranded.