Floods stir anger at Pakistan government response

Mon Aug 2, 2010 5:39am EDT

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* Criticism of government

* Floods wash away homes, livelihoods

* Death toll could rise

By Michael Georgy

ISLAMABAD, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities struggled on Monday to help victims of the country's worst flooding in memory, which has so far killed more than 1,000 people and prompted sharp criticism of the government.

The floods that have ravaged the northwest are testing a government that is heavily dependant on foreign aid and that has a poor record in crisis management -- whether fighting Taliban insurgents or easing chronic power cuts.

"We have lost everything. We only managed to save our lives. Nobody has come to us. We have become beggars, asking people for a piece of bread," said Mihrajuddin Khan, a school teacher in Swat Valley. "We are being treated like orphans, animals."

Rescuers are struggling to distribute relief to tens of thousands of people trapped in the submerged areas, where destroyed roads and bridges make access difficult.

Authorities are also expecting the the death toll to rise as more heavy monsoon rains are due to lash the northwest this week.

"Our main challenge of getting a clearer picture is still access. The flood waters are still there, a lot of areas are still under water," said Nicki Bennett, senior humanitarian officer for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"But now more importantly as the water receeds, the roads and the bridges that have been taken out make it impossible to get to some areas except by using helicopters."

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Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority said more than 29,500 houses have been damaged and a key trade highway to China was blocked in several places by the flooding.

Officials said it was too early to estimate the damage the floods had caused to the overall economy, but the rains have so far spared the main agricultural heartland in the Punjab.

The disaster management authority said several measures have been taken to ease the suffering of those still in the flooded areas. Tents and hygiene kits have been delivered. Helicopters and boats have been dispatched.

But analysts say the government really lacks the resources to take on a disaster of this scale.

ARMY TAKES CHARGE

More than 30,000 Pakistani army troops have rescued some 19,000 people from the marooned areas, but officials conceded some might still be trapped and awaiting help in remote areas including Kohistan, Nowshera, Dir and in the Swat valley. The army has its own problems. In the town of Nowshera, 100 kms (62 miles) northwest of the capital Islamabad, military bases used for staging attacks against militants were flooded. The government's failure to help victims reinforced the long-held view that Pakistan's civilian authorities are ineffective, leaving the military to step in at troubled times.

The government of President Asif Ali Zardari has limited control over the military, and has also been undermined by tussles with the judiciary. It has been relatively ineffective in tackling corruption and reforming the economy.

"When you have a democratically-elected government it is expected that the civilian government will mobilise all their resources and will come to the rescue of the people," said Riffat Hussein, chairman, department of defence and strategic studies, at Quaid-e-Azam University.

"What we have seen is their almost total paralysis and they have not been able to mobilise the resources."

Many in the path of the floods scrambled to save their livestock. One man swam across heavy currents with his chicken tied around his neck. In one town, there were more than a hundred bloated buffalo carcasses, raising the spectre of disease.

People complained there was no early warning of flash floods from the government. Some were suddenly waist-deep in water, forced to grab their children and belongings and evacuate.

Analysts said part of the problem is the government has no long-term strategy to deal with such catastrophes.

"They are so preoccupied with trying to put out fires all the time and looking at the day-to-day things. They don't have the vision and the capability for a longer and broader perspective," said Talat Masood, a former army general and defence analyst.

(Additional reporting by Adrees Latif and Kamran Haider in ISLAMABAD; Sahar Ahmed in KARACHI; Junaid Khan in MINGORA and Faris Khan in PESHAWAR; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Miral Fahmy)

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