SUKKUR, Pakistan (Reuters) – At least 800,000 Pakistanis stranded by floods are at risk of dying of starvation or disease unless the United Nations gets more helicopters to urgently reach them, officials said on Wednesday.
The dire situation of these victims — reachable only by air — underscores the challenges the disaster has created in a country that could face unrest if it fails to provide compensation for the loss of homes, crops and livestock and ensure the economy doesn’t suffer too much in the long term.
“We have got thirteen helicopters right now. We would like another 37 because more are needed,” said U.N. humanitarian spokesman Maurizio Giuliano. “We are using aid drops. It’s not the best way of doing it, but it is the only way.”
The World Food Programme urged Pakistan’s government to quickly help the 800,000 people who can only be reached by air. “The fear is they may die of hunger or any (disease) outbreak,” WFP spokesman Amjad Jamal told Reuters.
The worst floods in decades, triggered by unusually heavy monsoon rains over three weeks ago, have receded in some areas in the northwest and Punjab, while aid agencies now say southern Sindh province is most vulnerable to rising waters of the Indus river.
Pakistan’s government, accused of being too slow to respond to the crisis, is holding talks this week with the International Monetary Fund in Washington to ask for the easing of restrictions on an $11 billion loan programme approved in 2008.
Pakistan can ask the fund to adjust the programme to factor in the floods’ devastating impact on the economy or opt out of it completely and taken on emergency funding provided by the IMF to countries hit by natural disasters.
GAINS WASHED AWAY
Before the floods struck, Pakistan’s government had said it scored gains against Taliban insurgents through a series of army offensives against militant strongholds in the northwest.
The floods, one of the worst disasters in Pakistan’s history, now may complicate efforts to combat militants in a country the United States considers key to its counter-terrorism campaign.
Te military, which has led relief efforts, is stretched, and redirected some helicopters from frontier militant strongholds.
Islamic charities, some with suspected links to banned militant groups, have been more effective than the government in providing relief to flood victims, raising concerns they can take advantage of the disorder and hardship to gain recruits.
“We closed down most of their relief camps which they had set up under different names,” Amir Haider Khan Hoti, chief provincial minister in the northwest, told Reuters.
“But definitely they consider this an opportunity, they think there is space for them to exploit.”
Pakistan’s government had planned to invest billions of development dollars in the northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province to undermine militants who often recruit Pakistanis disillusioned with the government, Hoti said in an interview.
Now it has been forced to suspend this year’s development spending, aimed at winning public support there, and focus on flood relief.
The floods have wiped out villages, roads, bridges and livelihoods. Already stretched aid groups are scrambling to prevent outbreaks of potentially fatal diseases such as cholera.
The disaster has affected an estimated 17.2 million people. Eight million of them are believed to need life-saving humanitarian assistance. An estimated six million people need emergency shelter.