/ 14 August 2010

Aid agencies struggle to reach Pakistan flood victims

United Nations aid agencies have provided assistance to hundreds of thousands of victims of Pakistan’s worst floods in decades but relief operations have yet to reach an estimated six million people.

The lives of 14-million people — 8% of the population — have been disrupted by one of the worst catastrophes in Pakistan’s history. Six million of them need food, shelter and water.

The floods, triggered by torrential monsoon downpours just over two weeks ago, engulfed Pakistan’s Indus river basin, killed more than 1 600 people.

Pakistan’s government, overwhelmed by the disaster, has been accused of being to slow to respond to the crisis with victims relying on the military and international aid agencies for help.

Anger is spreading, raising the possibility that the government could face social unrest.

Analysts say a military coup is unlikely because the army’s priority is fighting Taliban insurgents and taking over during a disaster makes no sense.

Villages have been wiped away. Some people only have a patch of land to stand on. Fresh downpours could bring more destruction, and displacement.

A UN statement said relief operations still need to reach six million people. Among other urgent problems, clean drinking water is needed for an initial target of six million people.

The United Nations says the floods have affected about one-third of Pakistan, an area the size of a European country.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Pakistan over the weekend to discuss the crisis.

The economic costs are staggering, making it more difficult for the government to carry out strategic spending in former Taliban bastions to win public support.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick said the floods may have destroyed about $1-billion worth of crops and that the Bank was considering reprogramming about $900-million in aid.

Wheat, cotton and sugar crops have all suffered damage in a country where agriculture is a mainstay of the economy.

The International Monetary Fund has warned of major economic harm and the Finance Ministry said it would miss this year’s 4,5% gross domestic product growth target.

The government had projected a budget deficit in 2010/2011 of 4% of GDP but some analysts believe it could now be at least 6% of GDP.

The UN is increasingly worried about water-borne diseases. A case of cholera has been confirmed at a hospital in the north-west Swat valley and aid agencies are taking proactive measures to head off a potential crisis.

UN humanitarian operations spokesperson Maurizio Guiliano said 36 000 people suffering from potentially fatal acute watery diarrhoea (AWD) are being treated for cholera.

“Given that there is a significant risk of cholera, which is a deadly and dangerous and a potentially epidemic disease, instead of focusing on testing, everyone who has AWD is being treated for cholera,” he said.

At a flood field hospital in the north-western town of Nowshera set up by the army frustrated physician Wahab Khan said diarrhoea was on the rise.

“I have requested anti-cholera vaccines, especially for under five-year-olds,” adding he did not get them.

Providing shelter is one of the most pressing issues.

“The government has given us half a carpet. We have received rice and medicine from the government but no tent,” said 22-year-old labourer Zarsheed.

Floods have roared down from the north-west to Punjab province to Sindh, where more flooding is expected. Sindh is home to Pakistan’s biggest city and commercial hub Karachi. Floods have damaged mostly rural areas there, although concerns are rising that other urban centres are at risk. – Reuters