SUKKUR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari tried to comfort victims of devastating floods on Thursday on his first visit to the area after criticism of his trips abroad and his government’s perceived slack response.
The floods, triggered by torrential monsoon downpours, have swamped Pakistan’s Indus river basin, killing more than 1,600 people, forcing two million from their homes and disrupting the lives of about 14 million people, or 8 percent of the population.
The deluge, which began two weeks ago, has caused extensive damage to the country’s main crops, agriculture officials said, after the United Nations appealed for $459 million in emergency aid and warned of a wave of deaths if help failed to arrive.
“We have a huge task in front of us,” John Holmes, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement. “If we don’t act fast enough, many more people could die of diseases and food shortages.”
The International Monetary Fund has warned of major economic harm and the Finance Ministry said the country would miss this year’s 4.5 percent gross domestic product growth target though it was unclear by how much.
Wheat, cotton and sugar crops have all suffered damage. Agriculture is a mainstay of the economy and the United Nations has estimated rehabilitation will cost billions of dollars.
Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, set off on a much-criticized trip to meet the leaders of Britain and France as the floods were beginning.
Two days after returning home, he flew to the city of Sukkur on the banks of the swollen Indus river in the southern province of Sindh to inspect the destruction and aid efforts.
Security was tight, with only state media allowed access.
Zardari, wearing a traditional white cap, traveled along the one-mile long Sukkur barrage and peered into the roiling Indus waters. He also met victims of the flood at a camp.
Television showed him comforting a sobbing elderly woman with an embrace as children sat on the floor nearby. Villagers told him of their suffering and gestured as they beseeched him for help.
People have been jostling for food at distribution points throughout the disaster area, with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when hungry people break their fast at dusk with a special meal, adding to people’s anxiety.
“The government ... should provide clean water and clean food,” said Mohammad Ali, a baker scrambling for supplies in the northwest. “Ramadan has arrived, but we see no sign of the government giving us any of these things.”
Several barrages have been built across the river to divert water into irrigation canals and the flood waters have been building up alarmingly behind them.
Ahmed Kamal, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority, said water levels may rise dangerously on Friday and again early next week along stretches of the Indus in the central province of Punjab and in Sindh.
“There can be further devastation,” Kamal told reporters.
The meteorological office forecast scattered rain with a chance of thunderstorms across much of the country.
The government is still assessing the extent of the damage from the worst floods in the area in 80 years. A U.N. spokesman said a third of the country had been affected.
Hundreds of roads and bridges have been destroyed from northern mountains to the plains of the south. Countless villages have been inundated, crops destroyed, livestock lost and irrigation systems destroyed.
Pakistan’s main stock market has lost more than 5 percent since the floods began. It ended flat in thin trade on Thursday as investors fretted about the economic costs, in particular the impact on inflation, dealers said.
The military, which has ruled for more than half of Pakistan’s 63-year history, has led aid efforts, reinforcing the faith many people have in the armed forces and highlighting the apparent ineffectiveness of civilian governments.
Analysts say the armed forces will not try to take power as they have vowed to shun politics and are busy fighting militants.
The United States is sending 19 more helicopters to help rescue people and transport supplies while six already operating would be sent back to Afghanistan, the U.S. embassy said.
The United States needs stability in its nuclear-armed ally to help it end a nine-year war by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials are worried that the Pakistani military might have to draw soldiers off the Afghan border to help flood victims, giving militants breathing room.
Additional reporting by Sheree Sardar, Augustine Anthony, Michael Georgy, Zeeshan Haider; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Ron Popeski