DAIRA DIN PANAH, Pakistan (Reuters) - After wrecking Pakistan’s northwest, the worst floods in 80 years swept through the economically vital Punjab in a catastrophe that has raised doubts about President Asif Ali Zardari’s fragile leadership.
Zardari went ahead with state visits to Europe this week, drawing criticism for his absence during the worst of the destruction.
Ethnic violence in Pakistan’s biggest city Karachi, and a suicide bombing claimed by Taliban militants in Peshawar also piled pressure on his government, widely criticized for its handling of the floods, which have killed over 1,500 people and devastated the lives of more than three million.
It’s too early to gauge the economic costs of the floods but they are likely to be staggering. Pakistan depends heavily on foreign aid and its civilian governments have a poor history of managing crises, leaving the powerful military to step in.
After $10 million in initial aid, the United States on Wednesday pledged a major effort to help millions hit by the epic floods in Pakistan, while also hoping to improve Washington’s image there..
Anti-American sentiment runs high in Pakistan, a regional power Washington says is critical to easing a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, before a U.S. troop pullout starts next summer.
Floods struck several of Punjab’s districts and were moving downstream on Wednesday, rescue and relief officials said.
“This is an unprecedented flood to hit the area, and we have so far evacuated 132,000 people and shifted them to safe areas,” Major General Nadir Zeb, overseeing relief efforts in the southern Punjab, told Reuters.
The Punjab Relief and Crisis Management Department (RCMD) said 1,343 villages were affected and more than 25,000 houses destroyed. At least 16 people have been killed in the province.
“Announcements were made in mosques and army people were telling us about the upcoming flood, but we thought they were just scaring us,” said a tearful Nazir Sahoo from the rooftop of his almost submerged single-storey house in Deira Din Panah.
At least 1.3 million acres of crops have been destroyed in the Punjab agricultural heartland alone, the RCMD said.
Pakistan’s chief meteorologist, Ghulam Rasul, told Reuters south Punjab and Sindh province have recorded an unusually high level of 100 millimeters of rain in the last two days.
Authorities in Sindh, south of Punjab, said they were making preparations for more floodwaters, hoping to limit losses.
“We are expecting very strong floods in Sindh in the next one or two days,” said information official Sumsam Bokhari.
The World Food Program warned of shortages and said it would airdrop supplies from six helicopters to areas cut off by flooding.
In Nowshera in the northwest, former army officer Mohammad Yaseen and other villagers picked through rubble hoping to find food and a few of their belongings.
“After two days, a helicopter came and dropped some bottles of water and packets of biscuits but nobody tried to evacuate us,” he said. “After four days, boats came but the water level had receded and there was no point in leaving the house.”
His village of Pashtun Gari was home to about 2,500 families who made their living from dairy farming and growing wheat.
Now the village and his house are steeped in mud and the stench of burst sewage lines and dead cattle permeates the air.
In another area in the northwest, a Reuters photographer saw a village flatted by floods which was once home to Afghans who fled war and turmoil in their own country decades ago.
People walked through knee-deep mud to lay their carpets along about 3 km (2 miles) of rail track, hoping to dry them.
In the commercial hub Karachi, authorities are trying to contain violence, a constant problem in Pakistan, where the United States needs stability to help overcome a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, unknown attackers hurled a grenade at a mosque during evening prayers, wounding six people, police said.
More than a dozen people were killed overnight, deepening fears of more bloodshed after the assassination of a member of the dominant political party in the city on Monday. Seventy people have been killed since then. [nSGE67307I]
In the Peshawar blast, Sifwat Ghuyur, a police commander who was active in anti-Taliban operations, was killed along with his driver. At least nine people were wounded, police said.
Adding to pressure at home, Islamist charities, some tied to militant groups allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda, are vying with the government to provide aid and boost their image.
Civilians who resettled after being forced to flee fighting in the northwest now face fresh uncertainty. Some had just gone home, hoping to start a new life. Now they must move once again.
“First it was the Taliban, now it’s mother nature,” said Nawab Ali, 45, who is from Swat Valley.
Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton, Augustine Anthony and Kamran Haider in Islamabad, Faris Ali and Adrees Latif in Nowshera and Junaid Khan in Swat and Sue Pleming in Washington; Reporting and writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Graff