Millions in despair as Pakistan floods spread

Downpours are preventing helicopters from rescuing stranded people and delivering badly needed food and clean water

More rain fell yesterday upon a Pakistan already inundated with floods, prompting the displacement of untold numbers of villagers and the despair of millions more. The United Nations said the disaster was, in terms of damage caused and the people in need, now "on a par" with the 2005 Kashmir earthquake which killed 73,000. Even heavier deluges are forecast for coming days.

Downpours Friday and early yesterday again swelled rivers and streams, and heavy rains in Afghanistan are expected to make things even worse over the next 36 hours, as the bloated Kabul River surges into Pakistan's north west. Pakistani officials estimate as many as 14 million people have been affected by the rising waters. About 1,600 people have died, most of them in the north west, the hardest-hit region. Mass evacuations are under way in the southern region of Sindh after the Indus River rose there.

As the floods spread south into Sindh yesterday, about 600 people were reported missing. Rushing waters washed away more than 2,000 villages and displaced 500,000 people. Authorities were desperately trying to protect two large dams in the region, in an attempt to prevent devastation on the scale seen in the north. Nevertheless, acres of wheat and sugar cane fields in the country's most fertile region were enveloped in water overnight, destroying two of Pakistan's most valuable export crops within hours. About half of the camps in southern Punjab have been evacuated over the past 48 hours as waters rose higher than expected, according to the NGO Plan International.

In northern areas, where thousands of people have been marooned since the rainfall began more than a week ago, fresh rains pounded down on a people who have had everything but their spirit to survive destroyed. A search and rescue team was dispatched to the village of Baseen in Gilgit-Baltistan yesterday after a river breach left about 300 people. This followed an earlier rescue attempt by the Pakistani military in the village of Ghanche in which 10 people were airlifted to safety but 30 others were washed away.

Eyewitnesses yesterday said babies were going hungry as dry milk powder and clean water supplies ran out, even in the camps receiving aid. Mothers in camps in Layyah in southern Punjab and Nowshera, in the north, have been forced to give their babies dirty water, according to aid agencies.

More than 700 camps have been set up in schools and colleges in every region, yet three-quarters of displaced people are still camped out on higher grounds outside – unable to reach the camps or else unwilling to leave their livestock on which they depend for a living. Thousands of people are stranded miles away from home, as many families were on holiday when the floods struck.

Khadija Jamal Shaban, chair of Focus Humanitarian Assistance Pakistan, said: "There is water everywhere but not a drop to drink. Even if there was enough dry milk, the water is dirty. We are terrified about the dead bodies and livestock we are sure to find once these waters recede; it is going to be nightmarish and hugely traumatic for everyone."

Focus Humanitarian Assistance, an affiliate of the Aga Khan Development Network, which is operating the only non-military search and rescue team in Pakistan, was trying to co-ordinate a second round of rescue and relief operations yesterday. While nearly $100m has been pledged by governments and charities across the world (including £4m from Britain's Disasters Emergencies Committee), relief efforts continue to be hampered by heavy rain and poor visibility which prevent helicopters and aircraft from delivering aid in some of the worst affected areas. The military's effort to rebuild roads and restore bridges that have been washed away were also being undermined by the renewed downpours.

Incessant monsoon rains have grounded many helicopters trying to rescue people and ferry aid, including six choppers manned by US troops on loan from Afghanistan. The US has reassigned soldiers to operate four Chinook and two Black Hawk helicopters to evacuate people from the Swat Valley in the north-west, and take aid there. About 85 US soldiers are involved.

The Pakistani military's efforts have been praised, but the national government's response has been so poor as to threaten its future existence. Dr Farzana Shaikh, author of Making Sense of Pakistan, who writes in today's Independent on Sunday, said: "General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of army staff, has been highly visible throughout the relief efforts as the military steps in to the huge vacuum left by the civilian government. No one is talking about it [a coup] yet but the political situation is so volatile that you cannot rule it out."

Some 30,000 Pakistani soldiers are rebuilding bridges, delivering food and setting up relief camps in the north-west – the main battleground in the fight against al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.

Major General Karel Vervoort, a veteran of many humanitarian relief missions and a former head of Training and Support Command in the Belgian air force, said a better planned military approach could have avoided many of the current problems hampering relief efforts. He said: "What are needed most are the big planes, the C130s, which can bring in large amounts of food and, vitally, clean water. The world has plenty of those, about 1,200 of them. I think Britain has about 50 but they should be pressed into action now. There is never any planning for disaster mitigation. The world just never seems to learn."

Britain's International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said yesterday that RAF aircraft were due to fly in 500 tents to Peshawar, one of the worst affected regions, as part of the UK's relief efforts. He hoped they would arrive today.

Also helping in the relief effort are Islamist charities, including the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, which western officials believe is linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lashkar is the militant group blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, the financial capital of India, Pakistan's regional arch rival. The Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation says it is running 12 medical facilities, providing cooked food for 100,000 people every day, and plans to open shelters soon.

Atique Chauhan, a spokesman for the foundation, said: "The magnitude of this tragedy is so severe, and the area affected is so vast, that the government alone cannot meet the needs of such a large number. The US efforts for rescue and relief are good, and we will appreciate help from all of humanity, whether it is the US or even India." Flooding was also taking a toll over the border in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where rain was stalling relief efforts. Flash floods have killed at least 132 people in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. Some reports said that 500 were missing.

Protests at Zardari meeting in Birmingham

Vociferous protests greeted Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari when he addressed a meeting of his supporters in Birmingham yesterday. Up to 5,000 supporters of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) massed at the city's International Conference Centre to hear the beleaguered President defend his controversial UK visit while Pakistan faced its worst floods in more than 50 years.

At least 200 vocal protesters gathered outside the conference centre to criticise his visit. One, Khalil Choudry, said yesterday: "He should be in Pakistan organising the welfare of the people. He has insulted his own nation by coming here. He's here to put more money in his pockets."

Taji Mustafa of the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir group said: "At a time when people in Pakistan are suffering the worst floods in memory, with millions displaced, over 1,000 killed, the President is enjoying himself in Birmingham, London and Paris. All he has done is kiss Cameron's hand, the hand that slapped him."

Others voiced their support for the President. Tahir Iqbal-Malik said: "I think the most important thing to remember is that in the past eight or nine years we have been fighting the war on terrorism. I think David Cameron's comments were incorrect. It was important for the President to come to this country to meet him. It is an important relationship for the future."

Presidential spokesman Choudry Mohammed Yasin dismissed the protests. He said: "They have a right to protest, but the President is delivering for Pakistan."

Before President Zardari addressed the meeting, his son Bhilawal Bhutto launched a formal appeal for aid at the Pakistani High Commission in London.

Mr Bhutto, who has been co-chair of the PPP since his mother Benazir's death in 2007, said his father was using "every tactic" he could to help Pakistan. Pakistan's High Commissioner, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, said substantial aid had already been despatched.

Andrew McCorkell

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