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Floods expose the politicians: Islamabad's response to the disaster has not been heroic, writes Tim McGirk in Sukkur

WHEN floods and mudslides began to erase mountain villages in Kashmir last week, the first ambulances that raced up to the disaster area did not belong to Pakistan's army or to the state hospitals. The ambulances were sent by Abdul Sattar Edhi, a devout Muslim with a white, grandfatherly beard who lives in a shack in Karachi.

The Pakistani press calls him Father Teresa, because his energy, his organisational skills and his selflessness are similar to those of Calcutta's famous nun. He began 30 years ago, collecting bodies lying in the sewers of Karachi and begging money to give them a decent Muslim burial. At that time Edhi had one battered ambulance, which he drove around the alleys of the teeming Arabian Sea port.

Today, the Edhi Foundation runs hospitals and orphanges, and has more than 5,000 ambulances, a helicopter and two aircrafts for emergency relief work. He has done it all without funds from the state government, relying only on private contributions. Where the flood devastation was at its worst, the foundation's helicopters could be seen darting across the sky, dropping food and blankets to families marooned in trees or on islands in the vast current of water sweeping across the Punjab and Sind. Long before government relief services had tracked down the refugees - who could be seen pushing their families across the flood waters on rafts made of doors and beds - Edhi's ambulances were waiting on the embankments with food, fresh water and medical care.

More than 1.5 million Pakistanis were left homeless by these floods, whose colossal devastation will leave scars on the country's economy for years to come. Much of this year's cotton and wheat harvest has been destroyed. In mountainous Kashmir, where the floods first struck, almost every bridge was smashed - 100,000 people are still stranded there and can be reached only by helicopters.

Over one flooded area, Panjnad, water could be seen from the air stretching for 15 miles in either direction, like a still, brown sea. A man carrying a porcelain toilet waded past a petrol station. Flocks of white egrets flew to and fro over the watery horizon, disoriented by the new landscape.

As the floods swept south yesterday into Sind, following the course of the Indus river, dams which were protecting cities, power stations and a vast web of irrigation canals held firm. But authorities said 1.5 million acres of low farmland in Sind had been submerged. More than 2,000 have perished in Kashmir, but the army's evacuation of thousands of people living in the flood path has kept the death toll from rising much higher.

Northern India was hit by the same torrential monsoon rains, which roared through parts of Indian Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, leaving 1,000 dead in the flood's wake.

In Pakistan, flood damage has been estimated at nearly pounds 1bn and the office of the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, has appealed to embassies and aid agencies in Islamabad for aid. Funds may not be forthcoming. International attention is focused on Russia, Yugoslavia and Somalia, and Pakistan's latest travails pale in comparison. Also, a spat with the United States several years ago over Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme has soured relations between Islamabad and its one-time ally. Pakistan is trying desperately to borrow pounds 250m to cover its import bill for the next few weeks. So far, Japan has pitched in with pounds 450,000.

Just how much of this flood aid will reach the victims remains in doubt. One newspaper cartoon showed a fat, local politician rubbing his hands in gleeful expectation over the relief handouts that will end up in his pocket. 'Every dark cloud has a silver lining,' exclaims the politician, while a drenched and shivering farmer gazes on hungrily.

Mr Sharif's handling of this natural calamity has been criticised, predictably but with good reason, by his political foes. The opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, claims that in her Sind constituency villagers were not warned that the Mangla Dam's sluicegates were to be opened upriver, and 40 people died.

The government was also slow in sounding the evacuation alert in Kashmir. The army's priority has been to save cities, towns, railways and roads, even at the expense of flooding hundreds of square miles of farmland. But the floods have helped the army - which has staged numerous coups in Pakistan - to regain its popularity while that of Mr Sharif has waned even more.