Pakistani authorities have evacuated more than half a million people in southern Sindh province, threatened by the worst floods in 80 years that have stoked popular anger at absent President Asif Ali Zardari.
Zardari may have made the costliest political mistake in his career by leaving for state visits in Europe at the height of the disaster which swallowed up entire villages, killed over 1 600 and devastated the lives of more than four million people.
The floods have also inundated crop-producing areas, dealing a crippling blow to the agricultural-based economy and threatening a food crisis.
Many Pakistanis were already critical of Zardari’s leadership of a country where militants still pose a major security threat despite army offensives, poverty is widespread, little has been done to improve education and corruption is rampant.
Floods have swept through the country, from the north-west to the agricultural heartland Punjab province and on to Sindh, wiping out bridges, roads and crops and leaving villages cut off along a trail over 1 000km long.
More raging waters are expected to inflict heavy suffering in mostly rural areas of Sindh — home to Pakistan’s commercial hub and biggest city Karachi — by Saturday.
“Monsoon rains continue to fall and at least 11 districts are at risk of flooding in Sindh, where more than 500 000 people have been relocated to safer places and evacuation still continues based on the Meteorological Department’s alerts,” said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
While authorities have conducted evacuations they are struggling with relief efforts. Food supplies are becoming a serious issues in some areas and conditions are ripe for disease.
‘They don’t care about us’
“There have been constant rains which have aggravated the situation in the areas already struck by floods,” said Saleh Farooqui, the director general of the provincial disaster management authority.
“People had to leave their homes because of floods and they now also have to face problems because of rains.”
Zardari is currently in Britain for a visit. Prime Minister David Cameron invited him to dinner on Thursday at his Chequers official country residence. Formal talks on Friday will focus on strengthening cooperation in countering terrorism.
“Our president prefers to go abroad rather than supervising the whole relief operation in such a crisis,” said Ghulam Rasool, a resident of the town of Sukkur. “They don’t care about us. They have their own agendas and interests.”
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has, however, visited several flooded areas, speaking with survivors at relief camps. He said the government has the ability and will to handle the challenge but needs assistance from the international community.
Many Pakistanis see the government’s handling of the crisis as ineffective, and with the army spearheading the relief efforts, it reinforces the view that civilian administrations are unable to cope, leaving the powerful military in charge.
The military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history, is unlikely to make a grab for power, even though Zardari and his government may be in a weaker position than ever.
For one, analysts say, it is preoccupied with the threat of Taliban insurgents who have survived several army offensives.
Islamabad is also heavily dependent on Western countries such as the United States, which want a stable Pakistan to crack down on a Taliban insurgency in neighbouring Afghanistan.
“I doubt the army has any plans to take over. They have their hands full at the moment with Americans putting pressure on them to handle that situation,” said Mohammad Zia Uddin, editor of Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper.
The army is also busy rescuing people. In a typical scene, helicopters fly above roofs of houses to pluck people stuck there.
Across the country, Pakistanis fend for themselves.
Many are out in the open and are likely to be displaced again, just like cattle-breeder Khair Mohammad.
“We don’t have anything, no one has given us even a single penny,” said Mohammad, standing under a rain that had not stopped all morning.
Some distance away, an elderly woman who fractured her leg while leaving her flooded house sat on a portable wooden bed, wondering, like so many others, if help will ever come. – Reuters