The United Nations said Monday that massive floods in Pakistan had affected 13.8 million people and eclipsed the scale of the devastating 2004 tsunami, as anger mounted among survivors.
The Pakistani government and UN officials have appealed for more urgent relief efforts to cope with the country’s worst ever floods, with President Asif Ali Zardari due to return home after a heavily criticised European tour.
The entire northwestern Swat valley, where Pakistan fought a major campaign to flush out Taliban insurgents last year, was cut off at the weekend as were parts of the country’s breadbasket in Punjab and Sindh.
“This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake,” Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told AFP.
He said the 13.8 million affected outstripped the more than three million hit by the 2005 earthquake, five million in the 2004 tsunami and the three million affected by the Haiti earthquake in January this year.
The United Nations estimates 1,600 people have died in Pakistan’s floods and the Pakistani government has confirmed 1,243 deaths. About 220,000 were killed by the December 26, 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.
Martin Mogwanja, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Pakistan, called on relief operations “to be massively scaled up”.
“This is the worst ever flood of our history. The nation needs to come together at this crucial time,” said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani after visiting flood-hit areas of Punjab province on Monday.
“Rehabilitation of the affected people is a challenge. We are facing a bigger challenge than 2005 earthquake. It is a catastrophe,” he said.
The government said foreign donors including the United States have pledged 92.8 million US dollars in aid but, on the ground, Islamic charities with suspected extremist links have been far more visible in the relief effort.
Pakistan’s meteorological office forecast only scattered rain in the next 24 hours and said the intensity of monsoon showers was lessening.
But with floods sweeping south, hundreds of thousands of people have fled to seek safety as heavy rains continued to lash the province of Sindh and water levels rose further in the swollen Indus river.
“We have evacuated about one million people but hundreds of thousands of people left their houses alone,” Jam Saifullah Dharejo, irrigation minister for Sindh, told AFP.
Hundreds of farm workers were stranded on a bridge in the highway town of Karampur in northern Sindh, camped out with utensils and bedding while the road beyond lay flooded and the main Indus highway blocked, an AFP reporter said.
“We fled to save our lives. We thought we would get relief goods but we got nothing,” said Dodo Khan, 50, an agriculture worker.
“We haven’t eaten for three days. My younger son, who is just five years old, is crying with hunger.”
Gnawing on a piece of onion, the child winces at the bitter taste, crying and visibly unable to swallow.
Survivors have for weeks lashed out at authorities for failing to come to their rescue, piling pressure on Pakistan’s cash-strapped administration straining to contain Taliban violence and an economic crisis.
Thin and frail, Mahi Bacchi, 45, cried: “We voted for this government. We made Asif Ali Zardari our ruler but we don’t know why he is so unconcerned.
“We are here without food and water. Our children are sick but no one comes from the government to help us.
“Please send vehicle and take us out. We are in grave danger. There is water on one side and hunger on the other,” she said.
Zardari has spent August in France and Britain, courting massive criticism from the political opposition and intelligentsia for not returning at a time of national disaster. One protester threw a shoe at him in England.
The United Nations estimated that up to 500,000 people are homeless and 1.4 million acres of agricultural land destroyed in central Punjab province, but said damage was worst in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The OCHA spokesman Giuliano said that even donkeys were being used to access parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa inaccessible by other means and warned that the risk of water-borne diseases persisted.
Authorities in the Punjab district of Muzaffargarh issued a red alert and ordered people to evacuate as water entered the city from breaches in canals.
An overloaded army boat evacuating people in the Punjab town of Jampur capsized Sunday and 30 people are missing, said a local official.
At least 14 people, including three children, were killed as flash floods destroyed homes in the the northwestern Hangu district. In the lawless Khyber district on the Afghan border, 150 houses were destroyed in floods.