Islamabad: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged foreign donors to speed up aid to Pakistan after the country’s worst floods in decades disrupted the lives of more than a tenth of its 170 million people.
Swelled by torrential monsoon rains, major rivers have flooded Pakistan’s mountain valleys and fertile plains, killing up to 1,600 people and leaving two million homeless.
Six million people still need food, shelter and water and medicine, the United Nations says.
But with an area roughly the size of Italy hit by floods, government and foreign aid has been slow in coming and the United Nations has warned of a second wave of deaths among the sick and hungry if help does not arrive.
The UN has reported the first case of cholera amid fears that disease outbreaks could spread with survivors sleeping in makeshift tarpaulin tents. Some beg or loot.
Bridges have collapsed, highways have been snapped in two by torrential rains and villages have been cut off from the outside world in what was already one of the poorest countries in Asia.
Only a quarter of the $459 million aid needed for initial relief has arrived, according to the United Nations.
“I am here ... to share my sympathy and solidarity of the United Nations together with the people and government of Pakistan at this time of trial,” Ban said on arriving in Pakistan.
“I am here also to urge the world community to speed up their assistance to Pakistan.”
Ban met both Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari, who has been a lightening rod for popular anger after travelling to Europe as the catastrophe unfolded and not cutting short his trip.
The UN leader plans to visit flood hit areas on Sunday.
Ban’s visit comes as millions of Pakistanis are increasingly frustrated by the government that has already been hit by political bickering and Taliban militant violence,
Pakistan’s government has been accused of being too slow to respond to the crisis with victims relying mostly on the military -- the most powerful force in Pakistan -- and foreign aid agencies for help.
Floodwaters pose new threats to the populous Sindh province and the southwest province of Baluchistan, a region also hit by a decades long separatist insurgency.
At least 500,000 tonnes of wheat have been destroyed by the floods. At Kot Addu in southern Punjab, thousands of bags lay ruined as workers were unable to move them quickly enough from rising floodwater.
“How many bags of wheat can you shift to a safer place in five or six hours? said Naseem Khan Khattak, owner of a flour mill that was submerged by floods. “We could do absolutely nothing. How were we to combat the deluge?”
Highlighting the lack of logistical support and helicopters for relief efforts, flour, cooking oil and rice were carried by mules along narrow mountain tracks to 150,000 people in Shahpur in the northwest Swat valley.
Despite the government’s perceived failure to tackle the crisis, a military coup is unlikely. The army’s priority is fighting Taliban insurgents, and seizing power during a disaster would make no sense, analysts say.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and Gilani have said they would leave politics aside in the crisis, possibly helping to create more political stability.
The International Monetary Fund has warned of major economic harm and the Finance Ministry said it would miss this year’s 4.5% gross domestic product growth target.
Any economic downturn would come just as the government aims to fund projects to win hearts and minds in the battle against the Taliban.
Wheat, cotton and sugar crops have all suffered damage in a country where agriculture is a mainstay of the economy.
Waters roared down from the northwest to Punjab province to Sindh, where more flooding is expected. Sindh is home to Pakistan’s biggest city and commercial hub Karachi. Floods have damaged mostly rural areas there, although concerns are rising that other urban centres are at risk.