Downpours hamper Pakistan flood relief for 15 million
Torrential rains frustrated aid efforts in Pakistan Saturday, with some helicopters grounded as authorities battled to help 15 million people affected by the country's worst ever floods.
Military rescue workers were rushing to evacuate families in the poor farming belt of Sindh province, where disaster officials were on red alert for a major deluge that could burst the banks of the swollen Indus river.
Fresh downpours hammered northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where some helicopter services ferrying aid were suspended until the bad weather subsided, although forecasters said there would be at least two days more rain.
"The situation is bad, particularly in the Swat valley, and we have advised people in low-lying areas to vacate their homes as river water levels are rising," said Adnan Ahmed, a provincial official.
The UN's special envoy dispatched to help with the floods cancelled a flight to stricken areas, and Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani also postponed his trip for a day because of the rains.
Those uprooted from their homes in Sindh have been moved to relief shelters in government buildings, schools and tents, but many families in low-lying areas resisted evacuation, said irrigation minister Jam Saifullah Dharejo.
"I didn't want to leave but when the water levels got high and we were hungry and couldn't cook anything... my brother told me we should leave," said Najma Bibi, 30, as she searched for food with her eight-year-old son.
"My brother is back in our village trying to protect the wheat stocks, our clothes and other things in our home and we hope he will join us later," she said.
Prime Minister Gilani has appealed for immediate international help to cope with the country's worst ever floods, which have affected 15 million people nationwide, according to the national disaster management authority.
Countries including the US, Britain and China have pledged tens of millions of dollars in aid for victims of the nearly two-week-old disaster.
The UN estimates at least 1,600 people have been killed by the floods that have ravaged the largely impoverished, insurgency-hit country, sweeping away entire villages.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, head of flood relief operations Major General Ghayoor Mehmood has said some 1,400 people have been killed, with 213 still missing.
Flooding has spread to Indian-held Kashmir, where at least 132 people have died and hundreds more are missing, while some parts of the Punjab are under six feet (two metres) of water, affecting nearly two million people, a senior crisis management official said.
"The scale of the needs is absolutely daunting," Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Friday.
More than 252,000 homes are thought to have been damaged or destroyed across Pakistan and 1.38 million acres (558,000 hectares) of crop land flooded, and it could take weeks before electricity is fully restored.
The flooding has threatened electricity generation plants, forcing units to shut down in a country already suffering a crippling energy crisis.
In Punjab a senior government official said water had entered an oil refinery unit, oil depot and a power generation plant, with workers being forced to leave their homes in the area.
Survivors have lashed out at authorities for failing to come to their rescue and provide better relief, piling pressure on a cash-strapped administration straining to contain Taliban violence and an economic crisis.
Particular scorn has been heaped on the unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari for pressing ahead with a visit to Europe at the height of the disaster.
In the English city of Birmingham where Zardari was due to speak later Saturday, demonstrators held placards reading "1000s dying, president is holidaying", "Thousands killed, millions homeless, what president is laughing for?" and "Are the Zardaris enjoying England while Pakistan drowns?".
The United States has pledged a total of 35 million dollars in aid, with military helicopter relief missions travelling into the worst-hit regions.
Australia on Saturday doubled its aid pledge to 10 million dollars (9.2 million US).
© 2010 AFP