By Karin Brulliard
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 4:44 PM
SUKKUR, PAKISTAN - The United States is diverting some of its five-year, multibillion-dollar aid package for Pakistan to flood recovery and will reevaluate plans for the remainder because the disaster has dramatically altered the country's needs, the top U.S. aid official said Wednesday.
The floods, triggered by the start of monsoon rains a month ago, have submerged one-fifth of Pakistan, washed away entire settlements and sparked fears of unrest. More than a million homes have been destroyed. In places where schools or hospitals previously needed improvements, they will now have to be built from scratch.
"I fully envision some of the priorities will have to shift, and shift so that there's more of a recovery and reconstruction focus," Rajiv Shah, chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told reporters here.
Shah was in Pakistan to see the destruction caused by the floods, which was apparent as his plane descended into this hardscrabble city in the southern province of Sindh, one of the hardest-hit areas. Below, a sea of opaque brown water, broken only by treetops, stretched to the horizon. It cloaked the sugarcane and wheat fields that sustain the region in normal times.
Under a raging sun, homeless families and their livestock sought shade along roadsides. Thousands of others were staying at a squalid tent camp, where aid workers briefed Shah on the numbers of sick children and their efforts to teach the brightly garbed women there about health and hygiene.
"Everything, everything was destroyed by the flood," said Baboo Shaikh, 65, who left his village near the city of Jacobabad 22 days before, a day before the water came and swept much of it away. Shaikh sat with his family of 15 in a low-slung, fly-infested tent, which he described as "congested."
Congress passed a five-year, $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan last year - long before the flooding - and most of it was slated for development. Little has been doled out, but USAID officials have spent months planning where it would go, including to several "signature" projects related to water and energy.
On Wednesday, Shah said that "every part of the portfolio" would have to be reexamined, although even that could not begin until the floodwaters recede and needs could be assessed. For now, he said, $50 million of the package will be redirected to flood recovery.
Many areas previously deemed priorities - agriculture, power, irrigation - are likely to remain at the top of the agenda, Shah said. But the types of projects might have to be more rudimentary or broad, and new sets of long-term problems are likely to emerge.
"We will need to reassess the full extent of our commitment to the people of Pakistan and do whatever is most appropriate and most effective to really help people recover," Shah told reporters.
The American aid package was meant to strengthen the fledgling civilian government in a country with a strong tradition of military rule. But it was also intended to counter the rising influence of extremist Islamist groups, some of which are providing flood relief. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has said that they could use the crisis as an opportunity to recruit fighters.
Shah ran into those forces - although apparently accidentally - on a visit Wednesday to a makeshift, U.S.-funded relief camp at a Sukkur school. The camp is touted by U.S. officials as being run by Save the Children and the U.N. World Food Program, which receive USAID funding.
But another visible presence at the operation Wednesday was the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation, a charity wing of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a banned organization viewed as a front for the militant group behind the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai.
U.S. officials said after Shah's visit that they had not been aware of the Islamist charity's role at the camp and that they have no control over which organizations helped when and where.
There are 1,800 relief camps in Sindh province alone. The United Nations said Tuesday that 800,000 people are still marooned in cut-off areas, and the agency appealed for 40 more helicopters to help reach those hinterlands.
On Monday, Zardari said it would take at least three years to see progress on reconstruction, adding that he did not think Pakistan would "ever fully recover."
But Shah said the flood could ultimately lead to better public services and infrastructure. He pointed to U.S.-funded schools built after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, which are more structurally sound.
"This might be an opportunity to build a health system that reaches more people," Shah said. "Five or 10 years from now, Pakistan's agricultural economy could be much better off because we used the opportunity."
At the school, a row of women had more pressing needs. They pointed to their bare, cracking feet and asked Shah for lotion and for money.
"What is the most important thing that we can do to help?" Shah asked one woman.
She thought, then edited that previous list to one word: cash.