Pakistan braced for more deaths as floods spread

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The Independent Online

The devastation of Pakistan's monsoon floods was threatening to worsen yesterday as officials warned the disastrous rains could spread in the coming week, piling new pressure on the country's over-burdened rescue efforts.

As the official death toll rose past 1,000, with tens of thousands still stranded, government and military officials said the eventual toll could be far greater once the floods have receded and the true scale of damage is surveyed. While the floods are subsiding in the North-west, they have spilled across the Indus river into Punjab, the largest and wealthiest province. More than 350 villages near the southern Punjabi towns of Rajanpur, Mianwali, Khushab, Bhakkar and Dera Ghazi Khan have been severely affected. The bad weather is expected to hit swathes of the southern province of Sindh in the days ahead.

"The level of devastation is so widespread, so large, it is quite possible that in many areas there are damages, there are deaths which may not have been reported," said the military's chief spokesman, Major-General Athar Abbas. Pakistan has experienced the heaviest rainfall since the deluge of 1929. Thousands of homes have been levelled, businesses washed away, livestock drowned and crops ruined. In the worst affected areas of the North-west, people were seen stuck on rooftops, wading through the water on makeshift rafts, clutching children and possessions as they awaited rescue.

"We are carrying out this rescue despite limited resources," said Lutfur Rehman, a government official in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly known as the North West Frontier Province).

The Natural Disaster Management Authority, which is co-ordinating the rescue efforts, is struggling to reach survivors of the floods. In the first few days of the disaster, terrible weather and a dearth of resources made it difficult for helicopters and boats to be dispatched for rescue efforts. The Pakistan army has dispatched more than 30,000 soldiers to fortify the rescue effort. It has also provided 21 helicopters and 150 boats, a much-needed but still inadequate supply. The army has rescued more 19,000 people but many remain stranded.

Among the worst hit in areas of the north-west is the Swat Valley, a former tourist destination that had been scarred by a vicious Taliban insurgency in recent years until a 2009 military operation wrested back control.

Reconstruction efforts in Swat have suffered a setback as the floods have washed away much of what was being rebuilt. Many of the valley's famed hotels have met the same fate. "Virtually no bridge has been left in Swat," said an army spokesman, making rescue efforts even more difficult.

The situation has become even direr with the outbreak of water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, skin allergies and possibly cholera.

"The most at-risk are children and women who are suffering from poor health and unhygienic conditions, living on roads, rooftops and other higher grounds under the sky," said a statement from World Vision, a group that monitors humanitarian disasters. The US embassy in Islamabad issued a statement yesterday saying that Washington is pledging support of $10m (£6.4m). Appeals were issued for greater help from the international community.

Amid earlier humanitarian crises, ranging from earthquakes to the displacement of millions during a military operation, militant groups with charity wings have seized on the opportunity to win hearts and proselytise their message. The fear is that they may do so again if the government is unable to meet their needs.

The increased flood devastation comes at a difficult moment for Pakistanis. Just last week, the country was mourning 152 deaths in the worst plane crash in its history.