Pakistan flood victim numbers rise by three million

Up to 21 million now affected, with death toll expected to rise when floodwaters recede and fate of hundreds becomes clear.

ISLAMABAD // The toll from Pakistan's worst floods keeps getting worse, as Pakistani authorities yesterday increased their estimate of the number of people affected by the floods to 21 million, up from 18 million. It was the second time in two weeks that the number of Pakistanis affected had jumped by three million, with most of the increase blamed on the floodwaters that surged last week through the southern districts of Sindh province, where the Indus River raged at 40 times its normal volume.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said more than 10 million people have been without shelter for the past six weeks because of Pakistan's floods, contributing to what the international organisation called one of the worst humanitarian disasters in its history. The actual number of people killed by the flooding remains unknown because large areas of the country are inaccessible. The official death toll is about 1,754, but the number is expected to rise when floodwaters recede and the fate of hundreds of missing people becomes clear, the authorities said.

The revised estimate coincided with the publication of a survey yesterday, conducted jointly by UN agencies and non-governmental organisations. According to the survey, carried out nationwide between August 24 and August 29, massive migrations prompted by the floods were making it difficult to accurately quantify the damage, particularly in the south of the country. "The survey was originally conceived to assess the conditions of people in settled communities … But the rapidly changing nature of the disaster resulted in a significant number of people no longer residing in villages affected by the floods but being on the move as the assessment was taking place," it said.

The United Nations Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) yesterday said floods in Sindh, Pakistan's southernmost province, had affected almost seven million people, prompting 1.3 million to seek refuge in government relief camps. Many more have found shelter with relatives, friends and generous homeowners in areas spared by the floods. Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority reported that the floods have destroyed or damaged more than 1.84 million houses.

Sindh provincial authorities said the flood surges passed into the Arabian Sea at the weekend. However, the vast body of floodwater that has swept the length of Pakistan continued to spread destruction in central areas of the province. Provincial authorities on Saturday ordered 400,000 residents of Mehar town in the Dadu district of Sindh province and surrounding areas to evacuate, while 50,000 people in the provincial city of Sita were yesterday on standby, ready to move. A further 200,000 people in the town of Dadu remained marooned.

People in large numbers from these areas were migrating to the northern district of Larkana, where about 134,000 people are already living in camps. People in Larkana and the neighbouring Qamber Shahdadkot district, as well as Dadu, however, face threat from the Hamal and Manchar lakes that are rising, provincial authorities said. In Balochistan province to the west, damaged roads hampered aid efforts, the UN said.

The districts of Jaffarabad and Nasirabad, bordering Sindh, have been worst affected, while "significant needs" have been reported in Barkhan, Kohlu and Sibi, the UN said. "More assistance is urgently needed" in those districts, Ocha said in its latest report. Ocha said: "Reaching out to all temporary encampments will be a major challenge. The number and population of sites is changing daily; some sites are closing as returns take place, while others are expanding."

Provincial authorities expected an estimated 600,000 people from Sindh, who have taken refuge in Balochistan, to return to their homes when the rail link between the two provinces is restored "in the coming days". A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said 80 per cent of the people living in flooded areas were farmers. The survey by UN agencies and NGOs said the immediate priorities of affected households were food and shelter. It also found that people whose farms had been flooded had lost a large proportion, if not all of the possessions they had.

About 60 per cent of the surveyed households said they had lost their main source of livelihood, forcing them to borrow money to cope and to reduce the meal size or skip meals, while women were eating less than men. They also said they would spend less on health care so that they could afford to purchase food, while some are planning to withdraw their children from school. The survey's findings concerning infants were even more dire.

Young children were suffering because of the loss of privacy for nursing mothers rendered homeless by the floods, with about half of the mothers saying they had reduced breastfeeding and 15 per cent had stopped altogether.