UN: Pakistan floods ravage lives of millions

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The worst floods in memory in Pakistan have devastated the lives of more than three million people, a UN spokesman said today while outrage over the unpopular government's response to its people's plight spreads.

The catastrophe, which started almost a week ago and has killed more than 1,400 people, is likely to deepen as more rains are expected. A breakout of water-borne diseases such as cholera could create a health crisis.

The disaster has also, once again, called into question the leadership of President Asif Ali Zardari, already hampered by problems ranging from a stubborn Taliban insurgency, widespread poverty to chronic power cuts in the nuclear-armed Us ally.

Pakistan's civilian governments have long been perceived as riddled by corruption and largely ineffective, leaving the powerful military to step in during troubled times.

Poorly resourced Pakistani authorities are struggling to help flood victims, many of whom have lost everything and say they received no warnings that raging waters were heading their way.

United Nations World Food Programme spokesman Amjad Jamaal said an estimated 1.8 million are in dire need of water, food and shelter. He said some people are being bitten by water snakes.

Anger was palpable in towns such as Charssada. A Reuters reporter saw people attacking trucks distributing relief items. Police then charged at them with batons.

Bistma Bibi, 65, who lost two grandsons in the floods, accused state relief workers of only helping friends or relatives. "I came here at 5 o'clock in the morning. I begged and fought but got nothing. They're giving them (supplies) to their people," she said.

Zardari's administration has faced a cascade of crises over the last few weeks, from the worst ever domestic plane crash on the edge of the capital to leaked reports on Islamabad's alleged support for militants battling US troops in Afghanistan, to diplomatic rows with Britain.

Stability here is vital to American interests in the region. Washington wants Islamabad to join efforts to tackle a Taliban insurgency raging in Afghanistan by cracking down on Afghan militants who cross over the border to attack US troops.

Zardari is in Europe on a state visit, which has angered both ordinary Pakistanis and political parties who wonder why he is abroad during a difficult period.

During a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Monday, Zardari asked for immediate international aid.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar quoted Zardari as saying: "We need to rebuild the damaged infrastructure that has been destroyed first by the war against militancy and now further by the torrential rains."

The US embassy has announced $10 million in immediate humanitarian aid, with more to be earmarked as necessary. The European Union will donate 30 million euros ($39.5 million) while China will donate 10 million yuan ($1.5 million).

Amir Khan Hoti, chief minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the epicentre of the crisis, said the aid "should be bigger because the losses and damages are so huge".

Authorities forecast more of the heavy monsoon rains that have been lashing the area for the past week.

UNICEF spokesman Abdul Sami Malik told Reuters of the more than 3 million affected, 1.3 million people were severely impacted by the floods, losing homes and livelihoods.

"The main problem there is outbreak of diseases, especially in Nowshera district where hundreds of dead animals are lying on the ground," said Adnan Khan, spokesman for the Crisis Management Authority in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

"Most roads linking flood-hit areas have been blocked and 91 bridges have been either washed away or damaged, so access to affected areas is still a challenge."

Islamist charities, some with suspected ties to militants, have stepped in to provide aid, piling pressure on the government to show it can take control. Islamist groups played a key role in the relief effort following a huge earthquake in Kashmir in 2005.

The government faces highly determined militants, who often try to capitalise on a lack of civil services to recruit disillusioned Pakistanis to take up arms against the state.

"Since the flood hit our area, I did not see any food or relief packets from the government. Their offices have been washed away or damaged," said school teacher Yar Mohammad, waiting to cross a makeshift bridge over a river in Swat Valley.

To add to the people's misery inflicted by the floods, food prices are also rising sharply as agriculture has been wiped out.