SHADADKOT, Pakistan (Reuters) - More than $800 million has been donated or pledged to help Pakistan’s flood victims, the foreign minister said in Sunday, as hundreds of thousands of people in the south feared more destruction.
Rising waters in Sindh province threatened to wreak havoc in U.S. ally Pakistan in a catastrophe that has made the government more unpopular and may help Islamist militants gain supporters.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi expressed gratitude for the $815.58 million in international assistance to ease the suffering from one of the worst disasters in Pakistan’s history.
“In such a situation, when the West and Europe and America are in recession and donor fatigue is being discussed, this kind of solidarity for Pakistan, I think, is very encouraging,” he told a news conference in Islamabad. The U.N. had appealed for $459 million in initial response funds.
The worst floods in decades have destroyed villages, bridges and roads made more than 4 million homeless and raised concerns that militants will exploit the misery and chaos.
Saleh Farooqui, director general of the disaster management authority in Sindh, said floods have hit at least four districts, including urban areas, forcing about 200,000 people to flee for higher ground in the last 24 hours.
“The south part of Sindh is our focus. We have diverted our resources for rescue operations toward that area,” he said.
Officials expect the floodwaters will recede nationwide in the next few days as the last river torrents empty into the Arabian Sea, state news agency APP reported.
But when that happens, millions of Pakistanis will almost certainly want the government, which was already constrained by a fragile economy before the flood, to quickly deliver homes and compensation for the loss of livestock and crops.
The government has been accused of moving too slowly and Islamist charities, some with suspected links to militant groups, have moved rapidly to provide relief to Pakistanis, already frustrated with their leaders’ track record on security, poverty and chronic power shortages.
“My village has been inundated. We traveled several hours in a bullcart and now the dispensary is locked,” said Shazia Bibi, standing outside a government health center in Punjab province.
“Where can I take my husband? He cannot sleep because of pain. Whatever he eats he vomits it.”
Some were grateful for help from Islamist charities.
“We use to think they were terrorists but that’s not right. They were first who came to help us,” said Hidayatullah Bokhari, a 45-year-old farmer. “We don’t want them to become our rulers but they’re not bad guys.”
The flood has been spreading through the rice-growing belt in the north of Sindh district by district, breaking through or flowing over embankments.
The Sindh town of Shahdadkot was largely deserted. Most shops shuttered, but some said they still would not leave. People who used tree branches and sandbags to plug holes in an embankment. “This is the place where I earn my bread and butter. I live here and will die here,” said shopkeeper Mohammad Jaffar.
Pakistan said last week the floods meant the country would miss this year’s 4.5 percent gross domestic product growth target, while its fiscal deficit is now projected to widen to more than 8 percent of GDP. Floods caused widespread crop damage.
If plans to spend on infrastructure, schools, factories and security forces in former Taliban insurgent strongholds in the northwest are scrapped because of the costs of the flood, that could set back government efforts to win public support.
“It will be a very tough decision to make because in both cases you are dealing with unusual emergency situations,” said Asad Sayeed, director of the Collective for Social Science Research think tank.
Military offensives have failed to break the Taliban, whose suicide bombing campaigns have kept foreign companies from investing in the nuclear-armed country.
“Where’s the government? Nobody came to help us. I lost business in the fighting between the army and militants and now the rest has been washed away by the flood,” said poultry farmer Gul Umer, a resident of Swat Valley, a former Taliban stronghold.
Half a million people are living in about 5,000 schools in flood-hit areas of Pakistan where poor hygiene and sanitation, along with cramped quarters and the stifling heat, provide fertile ground for potentially fatal diseases such as cholera.
The International Monetary Fund said it would review Pakistan’s budget and economic prospects in light of the disaster in talks with government officials on Monday.
The meetings in Washington will focus on a $10 billion IMF program agreed in 2008, and the budget and macroeconomic prospects will be reviewed because of the magnitude of the flood disaster, officials said.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Islamabad, Asim Tanveer in MUZAFFARGARH and Junaid Khan in MINGORA; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Alex Richardson