By Griff Witte
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; A08
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Hundreds of thousands of people fled an ever-expanding flood zone Tuesday as Pakistan's leaders called for a greater international response to what they say is the worst natural disaster in the country's history.
With rain continuing and rivers surging, authorities were closely watching several key dams that are at or near capacity. The Sukkur dam in the southern province of Sindh was considered especially vulnerable; a breach could unleash a torrent that would wipe out towns and villages.
As the floods bore down, people were on the move, traveling by car, donkey and on foot to escape the danger zone. The evacuations included areas of Hyderabad, a city of 1.6 million people that is in the floodwater's path.
Although the flooding was concentrated in northwestern Pakistan when it began two weeks ago, it has spread south in recent days to inundate areas of Sindh and southern portions of the central province of Punjab.
Those regions are heavily agricultural, and the destruction of millions of acres of crops could lead to a food shortage, development officials say. The power shortages that plague the country could also worsen after a major natural gas field was submerged Tuesday. Concern is growing that the disaster could lead to civil unrest.
Already, 14 million people have been affected by the flooding, and the Pakistani government has conceded that it does not have the resources to tackle the crisis. But officials say they have been disappointed by the relatively small amount of international assistance that has been offered.
"If you look at the scale of the damage and compare that to the pledges we have received, so far there's a big asymmetry," said Sakib Sherani, the government's principal economic adviser. "Several billion dollars will be required just to feed and house the population temporarily. So clearly, the international community needs to step up."
In Washington, U.S. officials said they would provide an additional $20 million in aid, bringing the total U.S. contribution to $55 million. They also said that in response to Pakistan's need for more airlift capacity, the USS Peleliu, with about 16 heavy-lift helicopters, was awaiting final approval from the Pakistani government and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to dock in Karachi. The aircraft are expected to take over from four Chinook and two Black Hawk helicopters that were diverted from Afghanistan early last week.
The United States, which has provided the most assistance thus far, is also trying to coordinate aid from other donors. Afghanistan has sent four Mi-17 helicopters along with four tons of medical supplies, and the United Arab Emirates and Japan have pledged helicopters, U.S. officials said.
The Pakistani government and the Obama administration, whose relationship has been strained in the past, have been at pains to praise each other's efforts. U.S. officials have lauded the performance of retired Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, who is coordinating domestic and international aid.
"Pakistanis definitely appreciate the American show of concern, manifested in their quick delivery of assistance," Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, said Tuesday, confirming the official request for additional helicopters.
But many flood victims have been critical of their own government's response. President Asif Ali Zardari returned to Pakistan on Tuesday after more than a week in Europe, and his absence has come to symbolize government indifference to a disaster that has claimed at least 1,500 lives. Aides said Zardari probably would visit flooded areas within the next several days.
In an op-ed piece posted by the Wall Street Journal late Tuesday, Zardari wrote that he had chosen "substance over symbolism" and decided to stay in Europe to "mobilize foreign assistance . . . for our people." He said that Pakistan's plight had received "full international attention" as a result of his visits to Britain and France.
The United Nations says that less than $45 million in international aid has been committed, with an additional $91 million pledged. Within the first 10 days after the 2005 earthquake in the Pakistani region of Kashmir, nearly $300 million had been pledged or committed. Ten days after the Haitian earthquake this year, the amount surpassed $1.6 billion.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.