UN Appeals for Pakistan Aid as Flood Threat Continues

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McClatchy Newspapers

UN Appeals for Pakistan Aid as Flood Threat Continues

by
Saeed Shah

A village near Sukkur as seen from a Pakistani army helicopter Wednesday, Aug. 11. he deluge has left a trail of devastation, destroying roads, bridges and other infrastructure and overwhelming the government's ability to cope. It's affected some 14 million people, of whom an estimated 1,600 have been killed and about 2 million left homeless. (Saeed Shah/MCT)

SUKKUR, Pakistan — The United Nations appealed
Wednesday for $459 million in emergency aid for Pakistan as fresh
monsoon rains raised fears that new flooding could drive more people
from their homes, deepening the humanitarian catastrophe.

Storms lashed the mountainous northwest, close to
the border with Afghanistan, and the northeastern Gilgit region,
swelling rivers that empty into the central Indus River before it
reaches the city of Sukkur in southern Sindh province, which already is
full of people displaced from surrounding areas.

More flooding
would prevent vital repairs to Indus River embankments and dikes that
protect farmland, allowing water to spread even further when the fresh
flows reach Sukkur sometime next week, officials warned.

"Once this peak passes, another flood is being formed in the
mountains and then a third," Sindh's irrigation minister, Saifullah
Dharejo, said in an interview. "If we cannot plug the breaches (in the
embankments), the water will keep expanding out."

"This is a grave situation," he said.

Sindh
is now the focus of the worst floods in Pakistan's history. They
reached the province after washing down the Indus River valley, powered
by unusually fierce monsoon rains that began in northern areas of the
country some three weeks ago.

The deluge has left a trail of
devastation, destroying roads, bridges and other infrastructure and
overwhelming the government's ability to cope. It's affected some 14
million people, of whom an estimated 1,600 have been killed and about 2
million left homeless.

The overwhelmingly Muslim country of 170
million, a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, already had
been struggling to cope with an economic crisis and Islamic militants
allied with al Qaida when the disaster hit.

The United Nations
appealed Wednesday for emergency aid, warning that even those who'd been
saved from drowning were threatened with sickness and hunger.

"If
we don't act fast enough, many more people could die," said John
Holmes, the U.N. humanitarian aid chief, in New York. He called the
disaster "one of the most challenging that any country has faced in
recent years."

In Sukkur, the head of Sindh's provincial
government, Qaim Ali Shah, dismissed the amount of international aid
pledged so far as "peanuts."

The U.S. will be beefing up its
assistance to the relief effort with 19 helicopters from the U.S.S.
Peleliu, an amphibious assault vessel that is deploying off the
Pakistani port city of Karachi, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
announced Wednesday in Tampa, Fla.

The helicopters will be used to distribute food aid and ferry displaced people.
The ship's aircraft will replace six U.S. military helicopters that were diverted from missions in Afghanistan.

At
the Sukkur Barrage, 1.13 million cubic feet of water per second was
rushing through the 66 gates of the mile-wide flood-control barrier,
which the former British colonial government built on the Indus in 1932.

Experts
think that the flooding at Sukkur probably will ebb Thursday, but with
more rain falling in the north, the water will remain high and the next
onslaught of flooding could push it even higher, they said.

"Rainfall
(in the north) takes about a week to reach Sukkur," said Muzammil
Qureshi, a retired engineer formerly in charge of irrigation for Sindh.
"All five rivers converge before Sukkur."

The onslaught has burst dike banks, drowning hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in Sindh alone.

Only from the air do the scale of the disaster and the remoteness of the affected villages become apparent.

A
McClatchy reporter toured the region around Sukkur on a Pakistani army
helicopter and saw mile after mile of water, swamp-like in some places,
like the open sea in others. Thatched roofs and the tops of trees rose
above the water. The outlines of abandoned villages were just visible
beneath the surface.

The helicopter pilots had been diverted from
battling Taliban militants in the Waziristan region bordering
Afghanistan. Around 60,000 Pakistani troops are participating in rescue
efforts, raising concerns about the country's anti-terrorism campaign.

When
the helicopter swooped low, it became apparent that there were people
struggling to survive in the watery landscape, marooned in dozens of
villages on slightly raised ground. Women, men and children could be
seen in waist-high water, their buffaloes wallowing in groups.

Hundreds
of people had taken refuge on raised embankments, built to hold
irrigation channels or dirt roads, but they were stranded without food
or shelter from the ferocious sun. Goats, donkeys and trunks of
possessions kept them company.

While the military continues to
rescue people, many others are refusing to leave their villages, hoping
for the water to recede. However, the fresh onslaught that's on its way
from the north could make survival all but impossible.

(Shah
is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef and Jonathan S.
Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)

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