More rain soaked flood-ravaged Pakistan today and even heavier downpours were forecast for coming days, deepening a crisis in which hard-line Islamists have rushed to fill gaps in the government’s patchy response.
Pakistani officials estimate as many as 13 million people throughout the South Asian nation have been affected by the rising waters. About 1,500 people have died, most of them in the north-west, the hardest-hit region.
Mass evacuations are under way in the southern province of Sindh after the Indus River rose there.
The intense flooding that began about two weeks ago has washed away roads, bridges and many communications lines, hampering rescue efforts. Incessant monsoon rains have grounded many helicopters trying to rescue people and ferry aid, including six choppers manned by US troops on loan from Afghanistan.
The national government’s response has appeared chaotic at times, and confidence in its ability to cope has been shaken by the decision of President Asif Ali Zardari to visit France and England amid the crisis.
Floodwaters receded somewhat yesterday in the north-west, but downpours in the evening and early today again swelled rivers and streams.
Pakistani meteorologist Farooq Dar said heavy rains in Afghanistan were expected to make things even worse over the next 36 hours as the bloated Kabul River surged into Pakistan’s north-west.
That will likely mean more woes for Punjab and Sindh provinces as well, as new river torrents flow east and south.
Authorities have given varying tolls for the number of people among Pakistan’s 175 million impacted by the floods.
The United Nations said 4 million people had been affected, including 1.5 million severely, meaning their homes had been damaged or destroyed. But Pakistani officials have put the figure much higher.
In the north-west and Punjab, floods have displaced 12 million people, said Amal Masud, an official with the National Disaster Management Authority. In Sindh province, about 1 million people have been evacuated or are being helped out of their homes, said Jam Saifullah, the provincial irrigation minister.
An Associated Press reporter saw many people walking on foot and using trucks to migrate to safer places in Sindh. Some, however, refused to leave their lands, crops and homes.
“Let the flood come. We will live and die here,” said Dur Mohammed, 75, who lives in a mud brick home in Dadli village.
Mohammed was one of 250 people in Dadli resisting evacuation, even though floodwaters have already began touching the embankments of the Indus River less than one mile away. Many feared that if they left and the floods never came, their household items would be stolen.
The United Nations said the disaster was “on a par” with the 2005 Kashmir earthquake – which killed about 73,000 people – in terms of the numbers of people needing assistance and damage to infrastructure.
Pakistan’s military said it had rescued more than 100,000 people from the flood-affected areas, while 568 army boats and 31 helicopters were being used for the rescue operation.
The army was also providing food and tents to the survivors, an army statement said.
Some 30,000 Pakistani soldiers are rebuilding bridges, delivering food and setting up relief camps in the north-west, which is the main battleground in the fight against al Qaida and the Taliban. Foreign countries and the United Nations have donated millions of dollars.
A Japanese envoy handed a planeload of relief supplies to Pakistan, according to a government statement.
The US has tapped soldiers from its war effort in Afghanistan to operate four Chinook and two Black Hawk helicopters to evacuate people from the north-west’s Swat Valley and carry aid there. Around 85 US soldiers are involved, though the rain has limited their flights.
Also helping in the relief effort are Islamist charities, including the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, which Western officials believe is linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lashkar is the militant group blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, the financial capital of India, Pakistan’s regional arch-rival.
The Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation says it is running 12 medical facilities, providing cooked food for 100,000 people every day, and plans to open shelters soon.
“The magnitude of this tragedy is so severe, and the area affected is so vast, that the government alone cannot meet the needs of such a large number of affectees,” said Atique Chauhan, a spokesman for the foundation. “The US efforts for rescue and relief are good, and we will appreciate help from all of humanity, whether it is the US or even India.”
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani appealed for national unity during the crisis.
“I request that all the political parties be united and work together to help the flood victims,” he told reporters on Saturday, adding that the government is doing everything it can to move people to safer ground.
“The next two days are very critical in this regard,” Gilani said. “Our top priority is to rescue people, to save their lives. But we will also provide them all facilities, and we will work for their rehabilitation.”
Gilani was scheduled to travel to flood-hit areas in the north on Saturday, but bad weather forced authorities to delay his visit for a day, according to a statement issued by a spokesman for the prime minister.