U.N. chief says Pakistan flooding is epic, urges aid for victims


U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that the floods ravaging Pakistan are the worst disaster he has witnessed, and urged the international community to speed up delivery of food, medicine and shelter to millions of people — many of whom have yet to receive anything.

The Pakistani government and international relief organizations have been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, which has killed more than 1,600 people and damaged or destroyed more than 722,000 houses from the country’s mountainous northwest to its central agricultural heartland and the flatlands of Sindh province in the south.

The United Nations has said that $460 million is needed to supply displaced Pakistanis with shelter, clean drinking water and emergency healthcare, but only $93 million has been raised so far. According to the U.N., as many as 6 million flood victims have yet to get access to food and drinking water.

Ban surveyed flood-damaged regions of the country Sunday, and afterward said the destruction he saw eclipsed the scale of ruin he witnessed in natural disasters with far higher death tolls: the Asian tsunami of 2004, the 2008 earthquake in China and the earthquake in Haiti in January.

“I want to send a message to the world that these unprecedented floods demand unprecedented assistance,” Ban said at a news conference at Chaklala air base outside the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. “The flood waves must be matched with waves of global support.”

Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani said this weekend that as many as 20 million people have been left homeless by the floods, regarded by Pakistani leaders as the worst disaster to strike the country. U.N. officials have made more conservative estimates — anywhere between 2 million and 5 million people.

Fueled by record-breaking monsoon rainfall, the floods washed away homes, roads, bridges, hospitals and schools in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, then moved south into Punjab and Sindh provinces, destroying millions of acres of farmland and wiping out entire villages. Over the weekend in Sindh province, officials evacuated 300,000 people from the city of Jacobabad, about 60 miles west of the Indus River.

The government has been harshly criticized for what many flood victims say has been a sluggish response.

In the last few days, President Asif Ali Zardari has toured flood-stricken regions in upper Sindh province, southern Punjab province and the Nowshera region in northwestern Pakistan. But his ill-timed trip to Europe this month, just as the crisis was peaking, galvanized public anger against a government long regarded by many as weak and corrupt.

Speaking alongside Ban at the news conference, Zardari defended the government’s efforts.

“The magnitude of the disaster is beyond anyone’s imagination,” he said. “This is a long-term affair, a two-year campaign. For two years we’ve got to give them crops, fertilizer, seed. We must look after them and feed them for two years, to bring them back to where they were.”

Although frustration is widespread, early on it became clear that the crisis was so large it could not be tackled by the government alone.

The U.N. is trying to provide immediate relief as well as assessing the long-term tasks of rebuilding infrastructure and getting the country’s economy back on its feet. But U.N. officials have acknowledged that the international community’s response to the crisis needs to be much more robust.

The U.S. has led the international effort, providing $70 million in aid that many in Washington hope will chip away at deep anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

Washington has sent 19 military helicopters that have rescued 3,500 flood victims and transported more than 412,000 pounds of relief supplies. The U.S. has also delivered to the Pakistani government inflatable rescue boats as well as 12 prefabricated temporary steel bridges to restore access to stricken areas, particularly in northwestern Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

With the disaster now in its third week, the threat of waterborne disease has become a major concern. U.N. officials on Sunday said Pakistan’s Health Ministry has yet to confirm any cases of cholera, backtracking from statements Saturday that one cholera case had been confirmed in the northwest. Left untreated, cholera can lead to severe dehydration and death.

However, outbreaks of cholera are common in large floods. Guido Sabatinelli, the World Health Organization’s representative in Pakistan, said the massive scale of the disaster makes it possible that health workers could encounter thousands of cases.

“We could have up to 140,000 cases of cholera,” Sabatinelli said. “We are preparing ourselves for that.”