SUKKUR, Pakistan (AFP) – The United Nations is launching an appeal to help the millions of people hit by Pakistan's worst ever floods which have cut off swathes of the country and raised fears of a food crisis.
A UN official said the disaster has affected almost 14 million people, eclipsing the scale of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as the deadly floodwaters sweep south and rescuers battle to bring aid to survivors.
|Pakistani flood survivors take refuge on a small patch of land in the middle of floods water on the outskirts of Sukkur on August 9, 2010. AFP|
"We will soon issue an... appeal for several hundred million dollars to respond to immediate needs," UN chief Ban Ki-moon told a press conference on Monday.
"I appeal for donors to generously support Pakistan at this difficult time."
The Pakistani government and UN officials have appealed for more urgent relief efforts to cope with the catastrophe.
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 provinces.
"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 in the December 2004 tsunami in Asia.
"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."
Pakistan's meteorological office on Monday forecast 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 lashed 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.
Ban also stressed the need to consider medium- and long-term assistance to Pakistan, warning that this "will be a major and protracted task."
Food prices are skyrocketing, compounding the misery as the floods ravage the country's most fertile lands and wipe out crops.
"Roads are closed. Fields are under water and it has affected the markets badly," Amir Zada, 35, a fruit and vegetable seller in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
The government said foreign donors including the United States have pledged almost 93 million dollars in aid, but on the ground Islamic charities with suspected extremist links have been far more visible in the relief effort.
US military helicopters supporting relief and rescue operations have rescued more than 1,000 people, the White House said Monday.
In a northern area of Sindh, hundreds of farm workers were stranded on a bridge in the highway town of Karampur, camped out with utensils and bedding while the road beyond lay flooded and the main Indus highway blocked.
"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 winced at the bitter taste, crying and visibly unable to swallow.
Survivors have 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.
"We voted for this government. We made (President) Asif Ali Zardari our ruler but we don't know why he is so unconcerned," cried Mahi Bacchi, 45.
"We are here without food and water. Our children are sick but no one comes from the government to help us."
Zardari has been in France and Britain, courting massive criticism 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 Punjab, but said damage was worst in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.