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U.N. secures more Pakistan flood relief funds

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Nearly half the $459 million needed to fund initial relief efforts following Pakistan’s worst ever floods has been secured after days of lobbying donors and warnings that the country faces a spiraling humanitarian catastrophe, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

Despite the fresh funds -- and some signs that rain was easing -- only a small minority of the six million Pakistanis desperate for food and clean water have received help after floods that have killed up to 1,600 people and left two million homeless.

“There has been an improvement in funding. Donors are realizing the scale of the disaster,” U.N. spokesman Maurizio Giuliano told Reuters, “but the challenges are absolutely massive and the floods are not over.”

“The size of (the area affected by) this disaster is equivalent to Austria, Switzerland and Belgium combined. That’s pretty scary.”

A few days ago only a quarter of aid pledged had been received, prompting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to urge donors to speed up funding.

So far food rations and access to clean water have only been provided to around 700,000 flood survivors, the U.N said.

The International Organization for Migration said there were still about 700,000 households without shelter.

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Hundreds of villages are isolated, highways and bridges have been cut in half by floods and hundreds of thousands of cattle -- the livelihoods of many villagers -- have drowned.

In a possible sign of respite for aid agencies, authorities said there were signs monsoon rains could ease.

“We cannot see any new (weather) system developing that could produce heavy rains,” said Pakistan’s Meteorological Department head, Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry. “Now rivers on the upstream are returning to normal, but in Sindh it will take another 10 days.”

Many hospitals, however, were overwhelmed and fears rose for possible epidemics of diseases and viruses such as malaria.

“Up to now the situation is under control but it’s difficult to maintain because of the hygiene conditions,” said Dr Zulfiqar Ahmed Shaikh, medical superintendent at a state hospital in Sukkur, a main city in the southern province of Sindh.

Flies swarmed through the hospital where nurses tended to crying children and dead insects littered the floors.

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Highlighting the difficulties aid agencies face with logistics, British International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell was airlifted by helicopter back to Islamabad after visiting relief camps, due to protests over power cuts that blocked off a major highway.

The damage and cost of recovery could shave more than one percentage point off economic growth, analysts say. Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Britain, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, said the cost of rebuilding could reach $15 billion.

Victims are relying for help mostly on the military, the most powerful institution in Pakistan, and foreign aid agencies.

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The United Nations has warned that up to 3.5 million children could be in danger of contracting deadly diseases carried through contaminated water and insects in a crisis that has disrupted the lives of at least a tenth of Pakistan’s 170 million people.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says Pakistan could face food shortages if its farmers miss the sowing season, which is due to start next month.

Public anger has grown in the two weeks of floods, highlighting potential political troubles for President Asif Ali Zardari’s unpopular government, a major U.S. ally in the war against Islamist militancy.

Helicopter gunships killed 12 militants on Wednesday in the northwestern Kurram tribal region near Afghanistan, underscoring security challenges the key U.S. ally faces against the Taliban -- a fragility that could be exacerbated by the floods.

Some Pakistani flood victims blocked highways to demand government help and villagers clashed with baton-wielding police on Tuesday after opposition leader Nawaz Sharif tried to distribute relief in Sindh.

Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in CHARSADDA, Robert Birsel in Sukkur and Augustine Anthony and Kamran Haider in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by David Fox