MEHMOOD KOT, (AFP) – The number of people hit by Pakistan’s worst floods in generations rose to four million on Thursday, as thousands waded through water or crammed into cars to escape drowning villages.
The United Nations rushed a top envoy to Pakistan to mobilise international support and address the urgent plight of millions affected by torrential monsoon rains across the volatile country that have killed around 1,500.
The disaster is now into its second week and the rains are spreading into Pakistan’s most populous provinces of Punjab and Sindh, as anger mounts against the government response after villages and farmland were washed away.
“Altogether, more than four million people are in a way or another affected,” said Manuel Bessler, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Pakistan.
“What we are facing now is a major catastrophe,” the UN official said in Islamabad.
Officials warned that dams could burst as heavy rain lashed the Punjab town of Kot Addu, transforming the area into a giant lake.
Army helicopters flew overhead as people streamed out of flooded villages searching for safer ground, an AFP reporter said.
“All these villages are dangerous now. We are evacuating the population,” said Manzoor Sarwar, police chief for Muzaffargarh district.
“Important installations are in danger. We have taken all possible steps to save people’s lives and important installations,” he said.
But victims lashed out at authorities for failing to come to their rescue and provide better relief, piling pressure on a cash-strapped administration straining to contain Taliban violence and an economic crisis.
“Everybody is leaving. We came out empty-handed. We didn’t have enough time to take our belongings,” Ghulam Mustafa, 26, told AFP in Mehmood Kot, a village about six hours’ drive south of Lahore, the capital of Punjab.
Houses, shops, petrol pumps and small villages were submerged. Villagers waded barefoot through water up to their necks and chests, carrying belongings on their heads, an AFP reporter said.
“There’s up to six feet (1.8 metres) of water in the city. All our stuff was destroyed. We saved only our children,” Sadaqat Ali, 28, a plumber from Kot Addu told AFP.
His 12-member family carried bags on their heads — exhaustion and unhappiness etched on their faces. The children were barefoot.
“We weren’t warned the flood would hit our villages,” Allah Diwaya told AFP while manning a tea stall in Kot Addu.
“We weren’t expecting it. It was a sudden wave. Everything has been destroyed. Now we’re homeless,” he said.
Suhail Tipu, a senior administration official in the area, said that engineers had breached a flooded canal in two places to protect the Kot Addu power station, one of the country’s biggest.
UN special envoy Jean-Maurice Ripert was on Thursday visiting affected areas in the northwest, where officials say there has been a lull in rainfall and water levels are receding.
The UN World Food Programme says 80 percent of food reserves have been destroyed in the flooding and Pakistan’s meteorological department has issued new warnings of rain to come elsewhere.
In Sindh, authorities warned that major floods were expected on Saturday and Sunday in the fertile agricultural area of Katcha along the Indus river, saying 5,000 people had already been evacuated.
“We have prepared a plan to evacuate some 500,000 people,” provincial disaster management authority chief Sualeh Farooqi told AFP.
The number of affected districts in Punjab rose to seven and alert warnings were issued in five districts of Sindh to the south, the UN said.
“Water levels in Sindh are very high and there is a risk that if these levels continue to rise, it could pose serious threat to Sukkur Barrage,” said Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the UN coordination office.
Although Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has said about 100,000 people have been rescued and “relief items in sufficient quantity” provided, many say they have received no assistance from the government, only from local families.
Particular scorn has been heaped on the deeply unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari for pressing ahead with visits to Paris and London at the height of the disaster.
An international relief campaign is stepping up including a 10-million-dollar aid package from the United States, Pakistan’s anti-terror ally.