UN chief's 'heart-wrenching' appeal for Pakistan flood victims

Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, flew into the country yesterday to express his sympathy for the estimated 20 million people affected by the floods.

ISLAMABAD // Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, yesterday appealed to the international community to step up aid to flood-stricken Pakistan amid reports that five children in an isolated northern area had died of starvation. Mr Ban flew into Pakistan yesterday to express his sympathy for an estimated 20 million people affected by the floods.

"This has been a heart-wrenching day for me. In the past, I have visited many natural disasters, but I have never seen anything like this," he said during a press conference in Islamabad, looking visibly shaken. Accompanied by Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, Mr Ban flew over devastated areas of central Punjab province and met refugees at an army relief camp in Muzaffargarh district. "These unprecedented floods demand an unprecedented response from the international community. The flood waves must be met with waves of assistance," the UN chief said.

He said he would submit a report to a plenary session of the UN general assembly on Thursday to mobilise international support. The UN appealed on Wednesday for US$460 million (Dh1.7billion) in emergency funding to meet immediate humanitarian needs in Pakistan, but to date has received donations equivalent to just 20 per cent of that. Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, earlier told Mr Ban that his country urgently needed supplies of food and clean drinking water, medicines and shelter for the millions affected by the floods, which first struck in late July.

The floods have inundated an area roughly the size of Italy, killing at least 1,600 and rendering millions homeless and penniless, without food or clean water, and in desperate need of medical care. The UN secretary general's visit coincided with news that children, considered the most vulnerable group of flood victims, were beginning to starve to death. Five children in the Kundian valley of the northern Kohistan region had died of starvation, Abdel-sattar Khan, a local member of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial parliament, told Pakistani cable news channels yesterday.

Malnutrition takes a long time to kill, so it is likely that the children in Kohistan, one of Pakistan's poorest regions, were already severely ill before the onset of the floods. The UN could not confirm the news because it has no relief workers in the area. "This information is alarming, and may be true. What is true for certain is that if food supplies do not reach children in isolated areas in time, there could be many deaths," Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said.

Kohistan is one of three areas of the northern Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province where an estimated 660,000 people have been cut off from the rest of Pakistan since flash floods and landslides struck. The UN had warned on Saturday that delays in the supply of food could have drastic consequences for 260,000 children. It said about 10,000 severely malnourished children with medical complications would be at risk, and more than 100,000 more under the age of five would be pushed towards malnutrition. A further 150,000 children currently being carried by pregnant mothers would be born underweight, it said.

Even more regions of Pakistan were inundated yesterday as waters from the flooded areas of central Punjab and southern Sindh provinces spread, and new waves of monsoon floods travelled along the Indus and Chenab rivers. Waters from a breached canal chased, and threatened to surround, an exodus of an estimated 300,000 people from northern districts of Sindh into neighbouring Balochistan province in yesterday's early hours.

The refugees had fled Jacobabad district on Friday and sought refuge in Jafferabad, but were forced yesterday to flee farther west to Sibbi, an area of Balochistan already heavily flooded. The spreading floods have blocked all eastern and northern road approaches into Balochistan, provincial authorities and the UN said on Saturday. A second surge along the Indus River entered Sindh yesterday, flowing into previously spared eastern areas and destroying bridges, which threatened to separate the province in half.

A third flood wave from the Chenab River, a major Indus tributary, is expected to arrive in a few days, following one that arrived yesterday in the northern stretch of the Indus that divides Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces. The UN said on Saturday it was negotiating the launch of helicopter-based relief operations in the cut-off districts of Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur with Pakistani authorities.

The UN has also upgraded its estimate for agricultural losses, saying 3.2 million hectares of standing crops, or some 17 per cent of Pakistan's cultivable area, and 925,000 heads of livestock had been destroyed. It said damage to irrigation systems, and the loss of grain stocks, seed and farming machinery had rendered affected farming households "extremely vulnerable", and that their situation would worsen if they did not succeed in sowing the staple wheat crop in September and October.

"If this season is missed ? the impact on agricultural livelihoods and household food security will be catastrophic, resulting in long-term dependence on food assistance," the UN said in a report on Saturday. thussain@thenational.ae

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