Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Disasters leave nations struggling to cope

Asif Ali Zardari
Asif Ali Zardari

President Asif Ali Zardari finally returned to his ravaged country to face a barrage of criticism while thousands of people were evacuated from a major city in Pakistan's heartland as flood waters continued to rise.

The country's leader, under fire for failing to cancel an overseas trip while more than 14 million of his countrymen struggled to deal with the devastating waters, flew into Karachi yesterday.

He will face renewed criticism over his failure seemingly to grasp the scale of the crisis — Pakistan's worst-ever natural disaster.

Yesterday, thousands of people fled from the city of Muzaffargarh in Punjab province after officials issued flood warnings as the a swollen river continued to rise.

“It's really bad, horrendous,” a spokesman for the charity Plan International, whose partners are working to help people in the Muzaffargarh area, said. “In addition to all the water from the north west, we have had three days of torrential rain. Most of the camps that have been set up for people have been moved to higher ground.”

Reports said the usually busy city of 250,000 people, located in the breadbasket of the nation, was largely deserted after warnings were issued.

A number of men stayed behind to guard homes and businesses. “There is no doubt that our city is almost empty now,” a shop owner who sent his wife and children away, said.

The city's hospital said it was suffering from staff shortages because so many doctors and other workers had decided to leave before floods struck, and workmen had placed sandbags around the facility in anticipation of damage. While it was still uncertain last night whether the rising waters would engulf the town, people were not taking any chances.

Almost two weeks after the worst floods in more than 80 years started to sweep through north-west Pakistan, there is little let-up.

While the waters have receded in some places, elsewhere they have continued to rise. Several UN bodies have admitted the scale of the disaster has made it difficult to respond adequately.

“Our staff in Pakistan say the situation is among the most difficult they have faced. Thousands of villages and towns in low-lying areas have not seen flooding on this scale in generations,” a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said.

“[The government] puts the number of homes destroyed or damaged at more than 300,000, with more than 14,000 cattle having perished and 2.6 million acres of crop-land under water.

“So far, some 1,600 people have been killed, but many millions of Pakistanis and Afghan refugees have been affected.”

A spokesman for the charity Handicap International said rescuers were travelling to disabled people's homes by foot to deliver emergency supplies.

“Not even donkeys can reach — only men,” he said.

The UN has said the aid response needed to be scaled up “massively” and that it was working on a response plan that would require hundreds of millions of dollars in international assistance.

A spokeswoman for Mr Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) said one of his first tasks was to meet the chief ministers of the provinces to draw up a rehabilitation programme.

Elsewhere, rescuers yesterday continued to search through the rubble of a town devastated by the worst landslide to hit China in six decades, in spite of fears that a lake created by the disaster could burst its banks.

More than 700 people died when mud and rocks engulfed the small town of Zhouqu in northwest Gansu province. More than 1,000 people are still missing.

A 52-year-old Tibetan man was pulled from a collapsed apartment yesterday, only the second person found alive since Sunday in a town buried in sludge up to seven metres deep in places.

Engineers were yesterday hoping to drain the lake created when landslips blocked the river.

Officials have warned for years that heavy tree-felling and rapid hydro development were making the area more vulnerable.

Yesterday locals waited and wept beside buried and destroyed homes where their relatives and friends were trapped, hoping at least to find their remains.

“My niece is buried under there. She is a high school student, such a good girl”, one woman said.

“She was buried in the rubble when she was looking after my house. I will not give up. I want to see her body if she is dead.”

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