SUKKUR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Heavy rains are expected to lash areas of Pakistan already devastated by the worst floods in 80 years, probably intensifying a calamity that has cast more doubts about the leadership of President Asif Ali Zardari.
“We’re forecasting widespread rains in the country, especially in flood-affected areas,” Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, director general of the department, told Reuters, adding the downpours are expected in the next two days.
At least 1,600 people have been killed by the flooding. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said 12 million people have been affected in two provinces hit by the floods and figures were not yet available for southern Sindh.
The floods have stoked popular anger at absent Zardari, who went ahead with state visits to Europe at the height of the disaster, which swallowed up entire villages.
“This trip seems to have been the litmus test, and any benefit of the doubt that the president had remaining in his favor, has now entirely ceased to exist in the eyes of the public,” said Fasi Zaka, a radio talk show host and columnist.
The floods have also inundated crop-producing areas, dealing a crippling blow to the agricultural-based economy.
Floods are expected to heavily damage mainly rural areas in Sindh after roaring down from the northwest and through the central agricultural heartland of Punjab, along a path at least 1,000 km (621 miles) long.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, addressing the nation for the first time since the disaster struck after visiting flooded areas, described the loss of human life and infrastructure as “colossal” and appealed for international aid.
Many Pakistanis were already critical of Zardari’s leadership of a country where militants pose a security threat despite offensives, poverty is widespread and corruption is rampant.
U.S. officials, aware of the impact hurricane Katrina had on the fortunes of former President George W. Bush, have privately expressed frustration with Zardari’s refusal to return to Pakistan and personally handle the crisis.
In a conference call with U.S.-based journalists, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson sidestepped questions over the political impact of Zardari’s absence.
Pressed on whether it would have been more helpful if Zardari had stayed in Pakistan, she said: “I don’t know whether that would have been helpful or not. What we are trying to do is focus on getting supplies to people stranded by the flood and that is what the Pakistani government is trying to do.”
Pakistan is a key U.S. ally, and its stability is seen as crucial to battling a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
Food supplies are becoming a serious issue. In many areas, drinking water wells are also full of mud. U.N. officials said more than half a million people had been evacuated in Sindh.
One Punjab village saw a mass exodus, as families piled carts, pulled by camels or tractors, with their livestock, belongings and relatives and headed for higher ground.
Some people were reluctant to leave collapsed villages for safer ground.
“I didn’t intend to leave but they sent me out forcibly. I don’t know what will happen to my hens,” said an elderly woman being led through deep water by her son in a Punjab village.
In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces alone, 650,000 houses have been either damaged or destroyed in the floods. Reconstruction will require at least $2.5 billion, said NDMA.
Zardari is currently in Britain for a visit, where he and Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to do more to fight Islamist militancy, brushing over a diplomatic spat that followed British criticism of Pakistani efforts in countering extremism.
Many Pakistanis, however, were not impressed.
“Our president prefers to go abroad rather than supervising the whole relief operation in such a crisis,” said Ghulam Rasool, a resident of the town of Sukkur. “They don’t care about us. They have their own agendas and interests.”
The army’s spearheading of the relief efforts reinforces a view that only the military can take charge in crises.
Nevertheless, the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history, is unlikely to make a grab for power. For one, analysts say, it is preoccupied with the threat of Taliban insurgents who have survived several army offensives.
Islamabad is also heavily dependent on Western countries such as the United States, which want a stable Pakistan to help end the war in Afghanistan.
Across the country, Pakistanis fended for themselves.
Many are out in the open and are likely to be displaced again, just like cattle-breeder Khair Mohammad. “We don’t have anything, no one has given us even a single penny,” he said, standing under a rain that had not stopped all morning.
Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony and Kamran Haider in ISLAMABAD and Junaid Khan in Swat Valley; Stephanie Nebehay in GENEVA; Sue Pleming in WASHINGTON; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Graff