August 27, 2010 / 9:49 PM / in 7 years

U.S. doubles helicopters for Pakistan flood relief

* US AID administrator: damage "astronomical" from flood

* Money will be redirected from U.S. aid package

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, Aug 27 (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Friday it would double the number of U.S. helicopters to help with relief efforts in Pakistan after epic floods that have overwhelmed the fragile government there.

An additional 18 helicopters would arrive in mid-September as part of an expanded U.S. contribution to deal with the floods, the Pentagon said. These would be in addition to 15 helicopters and three C-130 aircraft already there.

Rajiv Shah, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said it was clear after he personally surveyed flood damage this week that significant resources would be needed when the waters receded.

"The scale and scope of this natural disaster is astronomical," he told a news conference in Washington on his return from Pakistan.

The floods have affected more than 20 million people and Shah said about 23 percent of the country’s cropland -- or 4.3 million acres -- was under water.

More than 9 million people are in need of immediate support because of the raging waters, which have spread out over a landmass bigger than Italy, he said.

Shah created a stir when he visited a flood victims’ camp on Wednesday where some supplies had been distributed days earlier by militant groups who are trying to compete for hearts and minds via much-needed aid.

CAMP SECURITY SCARE

Asked about the visit, Shah said the camp was run by the World Food Program and he was speaking to flood victims when diplomatic security told him there were "suspicious" people in the area and the U.S. delegation should leave immediately.

"We tried to make as graceful and appropriate an exit as possible," he said, recounting stories of victims who had lost relatives and their livelihood.

"I can’t tell you how disappointed and inappropriate that feels when you have been there and you have talked to people who have literally lost everything and are just trying to survive," he said of the presence of militants in the area.

"It is deeply saddening that others would choose these environments to propagate themselves and to threaten international aid workers," he added.

Shah said aid donors and Pakistan were looking into a suitable mechanism to ensure accountability and transparency for billions in aid to deal with the aftermath of the floods.

"We will hear more about that in the future as they work through exactly what structure is most appropriate. But I do think something like that would be helpful and I am glad that the Pakistani government has also been very focused on learning from different examples," Shah said.

The United States has contributed $200 million in flood assistance and plans to redirect some money from a five-year $7.5 billion nonmilitary aid program agreed by the U.S. Congress last year for Pakistan.

Some projects that had been targeted before the floods would be scrapped, Shah said.

"There are some areas where reprogramming will be somewhat obvious. We had been focusing on drip-irrigation, for example, which may not be the immediate priority given the amount of water and waterlogging," Shah said.




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