Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari made his first visit to regions swamped by the country’s worst ever floods as relief officials appealed for urgent deliveries of food, shelters and medicine for 14 million displaced people.
Zardari toured the Sukkur dam in southern Sindh province to see the damage first-hand, state-run Pakistan Television reported, after being criticized by the opposition for proceeding with a trip to Europe as the floods spread. Zardari’s hometown is in the region.
The United Nations has appealed for $460 million in emergency aid and Pakistani officials underscored the urgency of the relief operation as fears of disease outbreaks grow.
“We need relief supplies immediately, not today, not tomorrow, but right now,” Ahmed Kamal, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority, said by telephone from Islamabad, the capital.
Mosquito nets, tents and tarpaulins, kits to prevent cholera, ready-to-eat meals and water-purifying tablets are all needed as the catastrophe that has killed at least 1,600 people enters its third week. Pakistan’s resources “will run out in the next 25 days, or if we can stretch them, in the next 40 days,” Kamal said.
Flood surges triggered by unprecedented monsoon rains have swept south along the 3,200-kilometer (2,000-mile) long Indus River, devastating low-lying areas of Punjab and Sindh provinces, the densely populated economic and agricultural heartland of Pakistan, damaging 722,000 homes. About 700,000 hectares of standing crops, including rice and cotton, are under water or destroyed by floodwaters, the Food and Agriculture Organization has said.
Thunderstorms are expected to bring more rain to the north of Pakistan in the next 24 hours, Muhammad Riaz, the chief meteorologist said by telephone from Karachi, though they are not expected to be heavy. Flood forecasts were issued for parts of Punjab along the Chenab River.
“This is a major disaster,” John Holmes, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, said in New York yesterday. The U.S. today announced it had added a further $21 million in financial aid, raising the total to $76 million. The U.K. has allocated 16.8 million pounds and earmarked up to 31.3 million pounds ($48.8 million) for relief aid, the Department for International Development said on its website.
“Thousands are still stranded in their homes because they are refusing to leave,” said Rizwan Ullah Baig, director- general of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority in Punjab, where 7 million people have fled the floods. “We are getting them food and other relief by air.”
Water is roaring through a system of barrages along the Indus at rates exceeding 1 million cubic feet per second, as much as 10 times the normal levels.
“The flooding in Pakistan has the potential to be significantly more disastrous” than the 2005 Pakistan earthquake that killed about 86,000 people, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday. The Pentagon said in a statement last night that Gates had authorized the deployment of 19 Navy and Marine Corps helicopters to support the flood-relief effort. The 19 choppers will relieve six U.S. Army helicopters already in Pakistan that were loaned from operations in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, Abdullah Haroon, said the floods have returned some areas to a “primordial” state. “At least 6,000 villages have been “wiped off the face of the Earth,” he said at a press conference yesterday with Holmes.
In Sindh, concern has mounted over a possible breach of the Kotri dam, the last before the city of Hyderabad, which with 1.6 million people is the country’s sixth-largest and the biggest metropolitan area directly on the river. Large parts of the province’s north have already gone under.
“We have managed to evacuate some 800,000 people from the flood-stricken areas,” said Khai Muhammad Kalwar, a relief official in the province. “Another 700,000 people have also made their way to safety themselves.” As many as 100,000 more were unwilling to leave their belongings.
“It has been three days since we have issued a warning to evacuate to the people of Larkana city and Qambar-Shahdadkot but they are not willing to leave,” Kalwar said. “The total population of both these cities is 1.6 million.”
Six million children have been affected by the floods, with some 2.7 million children in need of urgent, life-saving assistance, the New York-based UN Children’s Fund said in a statement on its website yesterday.
The U.S. and Islamic militant groups, both pushing for influence in the world’s sixth-most populous country, have sent teams to help homeless villagers in areas of the ethnic Pashtun northwest that for two years have been combat zones. Rain halted some relief activity in the region today, Mujahid Khan, a spokesman for the Edhi rescue service, said.
Pak-Arab Refinery Ltd. yesterday closed its Multan plant, which processes a third of the country’s crude oil, and said it may start supplying fuel again within a week.