Pakistan’s army is struggling to provide relief for flooding victims without creating greater long-term dependency on aid, officials told President Barack Obama’s top military adviser.
Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani briefed his U.S. counterpart, Admiral Michael Mullen, near the flood zone yesterday before a helicopter tour to survey the worst flood in Pakistan’s history. The army has deployed thousands of soldiers, 300 boats and at least 10 helicopters, rescuing almost 200,000 people from the waters.
Kayani said he wants to ensure that tent cities don’t become permanent and that residents have the resources they need to return to their homes. Construction materials and seeds for re-planting crops may help more than emergency aid such as food packets in some instances, he said.
“We have to help them stand on their own two feet,” Kayani told Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a military base in Multan, a city near flood zones in Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces. “Don’t raise the expectations of people to a level you can’t meet.”
Mullen viewed the devastation during a helicopter tour lasting almost 90 minutes, with flooded areas often stretching to the horizon on both sides of the craft. Four weeks of heavy monsoon rains pushed the flood wave from northwestern Pakistan to Sindh in the far south.
Homes, roads, railroads, bridges and cattle were washed away or submerged. Rows of palm trees stuck up from plains of muddy waters, and neat rectangles that had been crops looked like reservoirs. A power plant on a rise had become an island, as had clusters of homes that were just high enough to escape the current.
“I was really taken back with the scope and the scale,” Mullen said on his way to Kabul today for his third stop of a regional tour that included a Sept. 1 ceremony in Baghdad to mark the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. “I think it’s going to take a considerable amount of time to recover from that.”
The record flooding, which has begun to recede in some places, has claimed the homes and livelihoods of 17.2 million people and killed more than 1,500, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said.
The disaster has raised the cost of maintaining stability for Pakistan amid insurgent attacks, global financial challenges and a war in neighboring Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund yesterday announced $450 million in emergency financing for Pakistan.
The deluge threatens to cripple Pakistan’s economy with a surge in unemployment, an increase in inflation and damage to billions of dollars in infrastructure, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said this week in Islamabad.
The Pakistani Army says it is providing 58 percent of relief supplies for the flooding, which may affect 20 million people and has damaged more than 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) of roads. Almost 20 percent is coming from the rest of the government, 15 percent from local donors and 8 percent from foreign aid contributions.
The U.S. has pledged at least $200 million in assistance and is providing technical help and transportation via aircraft, including C-130 cargo planes flying in from the war zone in Afghanistan. More U.S. helicopters are arriving this week.
“Clearly the heavy emphasis right now is on the floods and what we can do immediately,” Mullen told reporters traveling with him. “While the focus is on the near term, there also has to be some focus on the long term. Even as the waters recede, the level of damage is going to be dramatic.”
The flooded terrain covers a swath that would submerge the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. from Vermont through Georgia, according to a map overlay that Kayani’s aide included in a presentation on the disaster response.
One slide carried the caption, “Agro-based economy completely shattered.” The relief effort is in the early stages of recovery, and reconstruction will take at least a couple of years, said the aide, Lieutenant General Shafqaat Ahmed.
“I must confess to you, sir, this has been a very humbling experience,” Ahmed told Mullen. “It was a very difficult situation.”
The relief effort probably will have to be sustained for six to eight months, Ahmed said. “I think that’s going to be a big challenge for the government,” he said.
Mullen told reporters he hasn’t seen a severe effect on the Pakistani military’s pursuit of the militants waging internal attacks, many of whom the U.S. says are aligned with or supporting al-Qaeda.
Asked whether the army’s flood relief operations have hurt efforts to pursue the insurgency in Pakistan, and across the porous border in Afghanistan, Mullen said, “I think it delays everybody’s timetable,” including the “enemy’s timetable.”
“He’s left his forces in place,” Mullen said today of Kayani. “So the forces in place, for example in Swat, are the counter-insurgency forces and also are the same ones principally dealing with floods,” he said.
“This is a country that’s remarkably challenged right now, economically, security-wise,” Mullen said.