The United Nations on Wednesday warned of a second wave of deaths from floods in Pakistan unless help arrives soon as President Asif Ali Zardari defended his decision to travel abroad as the disaster unfolded.
Roiling floods triggered by unusually heavy monsoon rain have scoured Pakistan’s Indus river basin, killing more than 1 600 people, forcing two million from their homes and disrupting the lives of about 14-million people, or 8% of the population.
The UN was due to launch an appeal for several hundred million dollars on Wednesday to help victims of the floods, which have raised fears for the future of the nuclear-armed US ally.
“If we do not respond soon enough to the urgent needs of the population, if we do not provide life-saving assistance as soon as is necessary, there may be a second wave of death caused by diseases and food shortages,” said UN humanitarian operations spokesperson Maurizio Giuliano.
Hundreds of roads and bridges have been destroyed from northern mountains to the plains of the southern province of Sindh, where the waters have not yet crested, meaning the situation could get worse.
Countless villages and farms have been inundated, crops destroyed and livestock lost. In some places, families are huddled on tiny patches of water-logged land with their animals surrounded by an inland sea.
On the outskirts of the city of Sukkur, in Sindh, hundreds of people waited for food supplies at a tent camp.
“I lost my 12-year-old son. I’ve been to my village with soldiers on a boat but there was no sign of him,” said farmer Mohammad Hassan.
“I’m so worried. I don’t know what to do. Should I take care of my family here or go and look for my son?” Hassan, a father of 10, told Reuters before rushing into a throng jostling around a truck that arrived with rations of cooked rice.
The International Monetary Fund has warned of major economic harm, and the Finance Ministry said the country would miss this year’s 4,5% gross domestic product growth target though it was not clear by how much.
The UN says the disaster is the biggest the country has ever faced and it would cost billions of dollars to rehabilitate the victims and rebuild ruined infrastructure.
Giuliano said the UN would launch an appeal for several hundred million dollars in New York. Another UN official said the appeal would be for about $400-million.
Giuliano said he was optimistic the funds would arrive and $150-million had already been pledged. The UN World Food Programme said it needed $150-million to feed six million people for the next three months.
Zardari, under fire for his government’s perceived sluggish response to the floods, defended his decision to travel to France and Britain at the end of last month, which he said had helped focus international attention on the plight of the victims.
“Some have criticised my decision, saying it represented aloofness, but I felt that I had to choose substance over symbolism,” he said in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal.
The British government had pledged $24-million in aid, following his meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron, the Pakistani leader said. He had also been in touch with the US government, which has promised $55-million in help.
Pakistan’s military, which has ruled the country for more than half of its 63-year history, has taken the lead in relief efforts, reinforcing the faith many Pakistanis have in their armed forces and highlighting the comparative ineffectiveness of civilian governments.
Analysts say the armed forces would not try to take power as they have vowed to shun politics and are busy fighting militants.
US military helicopters have been airlifting survivors in an effort that may win Washington some supporters in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiment runs high.
“Let’s not talk about politics. We were trapped here and they came to evacuate us,” said Abdul Rehman (37), who was evacuated by a US helicopter after being stranded with a new-born baby and wife in the Swat valley.
“They’re doing good. Let’s appreciate them.”
The US needs a stable Pakistan to help it end a nine-year war by the Taliban in Afghanistan. — Reuters