Monday, August 09, 2010

Pakistan enduring worst ever floods

The still rising floods that struck Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces and that now threaten Sindh are becoming the worst in Pakistan’s history. The official death toll is around 1,600 people but with the Pakistani government estimating over 13 million people are affected it is difficult to believe the true death toll is not much higher. The floods have laid waste a 1,000kms swathe of Pakistani territory along the Indus River. After two weeks of pounding, heavy rain is still falling adding to the floodwaters and hindering relief efforts and grounding helicopters needed to deliver food to victims. Even boat rescues are proving difficult in the deep waters.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said they were are particularly concerned about the needs of 600,000 people, who remain completely cut off in the north of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They also said the floods have now reached the southern province of Sindh flooding hundreds of villages there. Rain is forecast there for the next three days. OCHA said they expected the amount required for the relief effort over the coming months will be several hundreds of millions of dollars.

The floods began last month after record monsoon rains, which were the highest in 80 years. The Upper Indus Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkwha began to fill out inundating the flood plain downstream. In some areas the water had reached as high as 5.5 metres. By 1 August, the Dawn newspaper was reporting at least 800 dead, as well as 45 bridges and 3,700 houses swept away in the floods. The Karakoram Highway, connecting Pakistan and China, was closed after a bridge was destroyed. The Afghan border city of Peshawar was also cut off with road and rail links under water.

As rescue teams attempt to get to the worst affected areas by boat, they soon realised things were even worse than they feared. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Amir Haider Khan Hoti said thousands of people in the inaccessible valleys of Malakand were in danger and rescue teams were facing problems in reaching there. “We are facing the worst-ever natural disaster in our history that has pushed the province almost 50 years back,” he said. “The destruction caused by heavy rains and flash floods, particularly in Malakand, is beyond our imagination.”

The floods affected the delivery of aid and the International Committee for the Red Cross said floodwaters also destroyed much of the health infrastructure in the worst affected areas, leaving inhabitants vulnerable to water-borne disease. Bernadette Gleeson, an ICRC health delegate in Islamabad, said they were restoring water systems to working order and distributing such items as soap and wash basins. “We hope to ward off many of the health problems that could arise if large numbers of people had to use contaminated water supplies,” she said.

Meanwhile Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari is fending off criticism he should return from an extended foreign trip. Zardari said the cabinet was responsible for directing relief efforts, and he was getting regular updates. It's the prime minister's responsibility, and he's fulfilling his responsibility,” he said. Zardari said he had secured promises of assistance from the countries he had visited - the UAE, France and the UK. But these promises did not cool down anger back home. "Our president prefers to go abroad rather than supervising the whole relief operation in such a crisis," said a resident of the flood-threatened Sindh city of Sukkur. "They don't care about us. They have their own agendas and interests."

Of most interest to the city is the Sukkur Barrage across the Indus built during the Raj to feed one of the world’s largest irrigation systems. Water has already exceeded the danger level at the barrage. By this morning, the water flow coming down the Barrage was recorded at up to 1.4m cusecs (cubic feet per second). It is only designed to withstand 900,000 cusecs. Operators have opened the Barrage doors, but the water pressure there remains heavy. With incessant monsoonal rain and a lot of water still to come down the valley, matters will get worse before there is any improvement.

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