Official estimates say as many as 13 million people throughout the country have been affected by floods, while about 1,500 people have died. Even heavier downpours were forecast in the coming days.
More rain soaked flood-ravaged Pakistan on Saturday and even heavier downpours were forecast in the coming days, deepening a crisis in which hard-line groups 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 northwest, the hardest-hit region.
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 U.S. 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 Europe amid the crisis.
Floodwaters receded somewhat Friday in the northwest, but downpours in the evening and early Saturday 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 northwest.
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 population 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 northwest 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 currently being helped out of their homes, said Jam Saifullah, the provincial irrigation minister.
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.
Some 30,000 Pakistani soldiers are rebuilding bridges, delivering food and setting up relief camps in the northwest, which is the main battleground in the fight against al—Qaeda and the Taliban. Foreign countries and the United Nations have donated millions of dollars.
The U.S. has tapped soldiers from its war effort in Afghanistan to operate four Chinook and six Black Hawk helicopters to evacuate people from the northwest’s Swat Valley and carry aid there. Around 85 U.S. 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, the group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The group has been officially banned, but the prohibition has been challenged in court and is unevenly enforced.
Foundation head Hafiz Abdur Rauf said the group is running 12 medical facilities and providing cooked food for 100,000 people every day. The foundation helped out after the Kashmir earthquake under a different name.
“In the next phase, we will start providing shelters, but presently providing food and medicines to the flood victims is our priority,” Mr. Rauf said.
He criticized government officials, saying they did little beyond hold news conferences and make announcements. But he welcomed the U.S. effort.
“Every helping hand and donation is welcome,” he said.