Frustrations mount in flood-devastated northwestern Pakistan

At least 1,600 are dead and millions are homeless after monsoon rains bloated rivers, submerged villages and triggered landslides in Pakistan.
By Griff Witte and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 2, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Anger against the government grew in the strategically important northwestern region of Pakistan on Sunday as authorities appeared overwhelmed by the devastation caused by torrential monsoon rains.

Estimates of the death toll from drownings, landslides and lightning strikes varied widely, from 730 to 1,100, with officials warning that the total could significantly rise. About 27,000 people remained stranded by the floods, which have wiped out communities and blocked major roadways.

The northwest has been battered in recent years by clashes between the army and the Taliban, and the past week's flooding will add to an extensive list of reconstruction needs. But the government, which is seeking to bolster its standing in the area, appears to have alienated wide segments of the population with a disaster response that residents deem sluggish and disorganized.

"I haven't even seen a police officer or a local or provincial representative to at least console us," said Sagheer Khan, a 45-year-old businessman from the inundated village of Nowshera Kalan. "If any government representative is seen now, he will be pelted with stones."

In past emergencies in Pakistan -- including an earthquake in 2005 and the refugee crisis caused by last year's army offensives -- Islamic charities with close ties to banned militant organizations provided basic services, filling a void left by the government and scoring points in the battle here for the public's affection.

Although that does not yet appear to be happening on a wide scale, analysts caution that the government should soon improve its performance.

"The government, unfortunately, seems to be mostly helpless," said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general. "I'm very concerned that the militant organizations will be jumping in."

Provincial officials in the northwest say this is the worst flooding to hit the area since at least the 1920s, and they concede that they have few resources with which to help victims.

The army, too, has said that it had not expected such a widespread disaster. In the past week, tens of thousands of soldiers who are accustomed to battling militants have shifted their focus to search-and-rescue operations. The army says it has saved thousands of stranded Pakistanis.

One of the worst-hit areas is the Swat Valley, which has only recently begun to recover from a major clash last year between the army and the Taliban. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, an army spokesman, said that virtually every bridge in Swat had been destroyed.

"We are unfortunate people in this province: Some are killed in bomb blasts, some in earthquakes, and now we are killed and displaced by the flood," said Ahmad Ali Khan, 54, whose family members spent days stuck on the second floor of their home as muddy water rushed through the first.

Pakistani television networks have beamed images of houses being sucked downstream by raging currents and of farmers clinging for life to partially submerged barbed-wire fences. Some survivors have had to relocate to the only accessible dry patches they could find: the roofs of their homes, where they have spent days without food or water while waiting to be rescued.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company