Pakistan floods affecting 20 million; cholera outbreak feared

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
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 15, 2010

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistan on Saturday sharply increased its estimate of the number of people affected by this summer's catastrophic floods to 20 million, and the United Nations said that 6 million of those victims lack access to food, shelter and water.

The floods, which continue to inundate new parts of the country, have caused a humanitarian disaster that has overwhelmed the capacity of both the government and international aid groups. Foreign assistance has been slow in arriving, and aid organizations warn that many more deaths could follow unless flood victims receive help soon.

On Saturday, U.N. officials confirmed the first cholera case among survivors. As people go without access to clean drinking water and basic health services, deadly cholera outbreaks can spread quickly. Other cases are suspected among the tens of thousands of people suffering from diarrhea and fever.

Revising an earlier official estimate that 14 million people had been affected by the floods, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani said Saturday that 20 million -- nearly 12 percent of the population -- had been displaced. His televised remarks were among the few official acknowledgments of Pakistan's independence day, which passed amid general gloom.

About 1,600 people have died during the floods, which began nearly three weeks ago and threaten to have a long-term impact on Pakistan's development and stability.

"If not managed, the dislocation of such a large number of people who have been deprived of their homes and livelihood coupled with the destruction of vast chunks of largely agricultural territory along the country's core Indus River region can easily translate into massive social unrest," the analytical firm Stratfor said in an assessment. "Thus far, the government has not demonstrated much capability."

The nation has already been racked by a bloody insurgency by Taliban fighters who object to Pakistan's alliance with the United States in the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

With the Pakistani army taking the most prominent role in the government's relief efforts, concern has grown in Washington that the flood will detract from the country's battle against Islamic militants. Pakistani troops have waged relatively successful offensives over the past year and a half in the Swat Valley and in South Waziristan, but those gains could be undermined as the army's attention shifts.

The United States had been pressing Pakistan to launch an offensive in North Waziristan, where al-Qaeda and several major Taliban groups are active. Pakistan has been reluctant to go in, and now the floods make it even less likely that its generals will open another front.

"The army still needs time to recover" from South Waziristan and Swat, said a Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said that a possible offensive in North Waziristan had "been discussed for the fall," but that now, "I don't foresee it."

Pakistani military officials insist the floods will not take away from their counterinsurgency operations and that the civilian government will be primarily responsible for rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by the floods.

The United Nations has appealed for $460 million in international aid to provide emergency relief in Pakistan, but has said that billions more will be required for reconstruction.

Pakistan's civilian government has been widely assailed here for its lackluster response to the disaster. President Asif Ali Zardari has drawn particularly sharp criticism for traveling to Europe in the midst of the crisis. On Saturday, he toured a relief camp.

"Despondency is forbidden in our religion. We consider it as a test from Allah for us. This is a test for us and for you," Zardari told flood victims. "We will try to meet all your wishes. We will build a new house for you. We will build a new Pakistan."

President Obama echoed those remarks in a statement to the Pakistani people in which he vowed that the United States would "work side by side with you and the international community toward a recovery that brings back the dynamic vitality of your nation."

The United States has committed at least $76 million to recovery efforts, and two additional Navy helicopters arrived Saturday to assist with the distribution of food. In all, 19 U.S. choppers have been ordered into Pakistan.

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