ISLAMABAD // Relief efforts for flood victims in the northern Pakistani valley of Swat, where Taliban insurgents were routed a year ago in a major government counter-offensive, are being treated as a priority by the Pakistani army and supporting United States military helicopter crews, officials and residents said.
Video: Pakistan floods 2010
Taimur Khan, reporting from Pakistan's worst flood affected regions in 2010, speaks to Claudia Charlton about the progress in delivering aid and the plight of stranded villagers and refugees.
Swat was among the districts worst hit by the abnormally heavy monsoon storms that inundated northern Pakistan in late July, according to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government. Flash floods and landslides caused by lightning strikes have killed 267 people, and have destroyed nine key bridges linking the valley with Mingora, the region's administrative headquarters and access point to the national highway network, according to the National Disaster Management Authority.
The floods have also destroyed 65km of the 90km-long road linking Mingora to Kalam, a popular resort at the northern extreme of the valley, trapping about 500,000 residents. Most are yet to receive relief supplies from United Nations agencies, except for small quantities that have been transported by foot and on donkey, UN officials said yesterday. The residents and an estimated 7,000 Pakistani tourists were isolated until August 5, when the army established a lifeline using four Afghanistan-based US army Chinook helicopters placed at the Pakistani government's disposal.
The US State Department said on Monday that the four helicopters have so far rescued more than 1,000 tourists from Kalam and airlifted 30 tonnes of relief supplies to the area. Mindful of local political sensitivities, US officials have been at pains to stress their involvement is a purely supportive role, and the only contact between Pakistani flood victims and US personnel has been limited to the Chinook crews, officials and residents said.
Nonetheless, the official fund-raising campaign launched last week by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, has strong counter-insurgency connotations, with the American public invited to text the word Swat to donate US$10 (Dh37) to the relief fund set up by the UN High Commission for Refugees in Pakistan. The US government has so far committed $35 million for assistance to flood-affected Pakistanis, and has said it will revise the priorities of its ongoing $1.5 billion-per-year aid programme for Pakistan to help with post-flood reconstruction work.
Residents said yesterday they had urged Pakistani army officials to utilise the US helicopters to evacuate the sick and injured to hospitals in Mingora and Peshawar, the provincial capital, and seek US assistance in reconstructing vital bridges lost to the floods. The recent history of militancy in Swat has also made residents a political priority for domestic players. Pakistani army officials yesterday began distributing cheques to the families of residents killed by the floods, something it has not done anywhere else in the country.
The chief minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Amir Haider Hoti, has promised that the families of flood victims would receive three times more compensation than their counterparts elsewhere in the province. However, the situation on the ground remains desperate. About 3,000 Kalam residents have over the past week worked with Pakistani army engineers and soldiers to build an unpaved road to reconnect the area to Mingora. They have so far succeeded in making a 20km stretch usable, The National observed during a tour on a Pakistani army helicopter.
The destruction of key bridges has also isolated about 700,000 residents in the erstwhile Taliban strongholds of Matta and Kabal from Mingora, on the opposite bank of the Swat River. Residents said local traders who transported food across the river in rickety boats, several of which have been capsized by the dangerous torrents, were charging double the usual prices for food and other essential consumer goods.
Government doctors in Mingora have also been unable to reach the two local hospitals, and four sick children have subsequently died because of a lack of proper medical treatment, the residents said. The Pakistani army responded to appeals from the country's Red Crescent Society yesterday, establishing a medical camp at Kanju, the main town of the Kabal area. The flood's destruction of power lines has left the entire valley without electricity for two weeks, rendering inoperative the tube wells that provide water supplies to the population.
Mingora's estimated 500,000 residents have started receiving limited water supplies after 30 generators donated by international relief organisations were deployed. Wajid Ali Khan, a provincial government minister, told journalists on Monday that power would be restored to Mingora in a week. However, local officials of the Pakistan Electric Power Company, the state utility, said it would take "many months" to rebuild power lines in the rest of Swat because of the massive infrastructure required.
In March 2009, Swat became the first settled Pakistani district to be occupied and ruled by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), following a peace deal with the government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Subsequent attempts by the militants to expand their "emirate" to neighbouring districts led to the scrapping of the treaty and the launch of a massive military operation over the summer that drove the militants from the area and was seen by Islamabad as a major victory.
* Usman Ali reported from Mingora