Pakistan enduring worst ever floods

The still rising floods that struck Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces and now threatening 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 affected, the true death toll is much higher. The floods have laid waste a 1,000kms swathe of Pakistani territory along the Indus River. After two weeks heavy rain is still falling adding to the floodwaters, 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 particularly concerned about 600,000 people, who remain cut off in the north of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They also said the floods have reached the southern province of Sindh flooding hundreds of villages. Rain is forecast there for the next three days. OCHA said they expected the cost of the relief effort over the coming months will be several hundred million dollars.

The floods began last month after record monsoon rains, 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 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 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.

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 promises of assistance from the countries he had visited – the UAE, France and the UK. But these promises did not cool 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 Barrage doors, but the water pressure 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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