Red alert in Pakistan as floods flow south

Gilani appeals for aid as almost one million people have been evacuated from the Indus River basin amid 'massive danger to their lives'.

SUKKUR, PAKISTAN // Pakistan's prime minister has appealed for immediate aid from the international community, overseas Pakistanis and the domestic corporate sector as the country issued a red alert in the southern province of Sindh yesterday.

Officials were racing to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people there as floods that have already affected more than 12 million people swept through villages and towns. Nearly one million people have been evacuated from the fertile Indus River basin where three million have been affected by flooding, according to officials, but local media reported that many are refusing to leave their homes. "There are some areas where people are still reluctant to leave their homes and belongings. We are compelling them to evacuate because there is massive danger to their lives," Jam Saifullah Dharejo, irrigation minister, said yesterday, according to Dawn newspaper.

Saleh Farooqi, head of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority in Sindh, said authorities had evacuated about 200,000 people from areas where floodwaters could hit, but many more were still living in the danger zone. "About 500,000 people living near the Indus River do not realise the gravity of the situation, and they do not know how fast the water is rushing to their areas," he told the Associated Press.

In a radio address to the nation on Friday, the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, said: "As I speak, the flood is still engulfing new areas and adding to the scale of devastation. At this time of crisis, I would like to appeal to the international community to support Pakistan to help alleviate the sufferings of the flood-affected people." So far, foreign countries and the United Nations have donated millions of dollars to the relief effort from the floods that have taken about 1,500 lives.

The United Nations said the disaster was "on a par" with the 2005 Kashmir earthquake - which killed about 73,000 people - in terms of the numbers of people needing assistance and damage to infrastructure. The Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation says it is running 12 medical facilities, providing cooked food for 100,000 people every day, and plans to open shelters soon. "The magnitude of this tragedy is so severe, and the area affected is so vast, that the government alone cannot meet the needs of such a large number of affectees," said Atique Chauhan, a spokesman for the foundation.

Yesterday, Mr Gilani told reporters that he wanted all the political parties to "be united and work together to help the flood victims", saying the government is doing everything it can to move people to safer ground. "The next two days are very critical in this regard," Mr Gilani said. "Our top priority is to rescue people, to save their lives. But we will also provide them all facilities, and we will work for their rehabilitation."

Late last night thousands of panicked villagers fled their homes in the town of Rahimabad near the city of Shaikarpu. In low-lying areas near the Indus River there were reports that an embankment on the river had been breached. Dozens of members of extended families were packed along with their belongings and even livestock in the back of tractor-pulled lorries and rickshaws. "I've sent my family to Shaikarp. People have heard water is coming," said one farmer in his 30s named Jahawar.

The intense flooding that began about two weeks ago has washed away roads, bridges and many communications lines, hampering rescue efforts. Incessant monsoon rains have grounded many helicopters trying to rescue people and ferry aid, including six choppers manned by US troops on loan from Afghanistan, AP reported. Specialist Joseph James usually flies Chinooks on combat missions in Afghanistan and was happy with his new mission. "It just feels nicer helping people," he said at a Pakistani air base in Ghazi where biscuits and water were being loaded into choppers. "The first time we got up there, everybody was shaking our hand."

The Pakistani meteorologist Farooq Dar told the news service that heavy rains in Afghanistan were expected to make matters worse as the bloated Kabul River surged into Pakistan's north-west. Among the many people who refused to leave their homes was Dur Mohammed, 75, who lives in a mud brick home in Dadli village. "Let the flood come. We will live and die here," Mr Mohammed told AP. He was one of 250 people in Dadli resisting evacuation, even though floodwaters have already began touching the embankments of the Indus River less than two kilometres away.

@Email:tkhan@thenational.ae