Anger still raw a year after Pakistani floods

Sun Jul 31, 2011 5:36am GMT
 

By Zeeshan Haider and Rebecca Conway

NOWSHERA/MEHMOOD KOT, Pakistan (Reuters) - A year after deadly floods swept through the Pakistani town of Nowshera resident Imtiaz Ali is seething with anger as he struggles to rebuild his life with almost no help from the government.

Nowshera was one of the hardest hit towns in Pakistan's mountainous northwest, where flash floods wiped out entire villages leaving behind tangled branches, mud and many thousands of people needing help.

Ali and his family, who has been living in tents since the flood seriously damaged their home, say they have only just got a little assistance.

"We have just received 20,000 rupees (140.05 pounds) and are building a room to live in," Ali said as his 14-year-old son slopped cement on a wall of the room.

"No politician visited us throughout the year to see how we were living ... They may have gone to influential and rich people and given money to them, but we just got the 20,000 rupees, nothing else."

It's a refrain heard all over Pakistan a year after the floods were triggered by several days of torrential rain over denuded, over-grazed mountains.

Muddy torrents raged down valleys in the upper Indus river basin, destroying almost everything in their path, then spread out in a glassy sea that flowed south for weeks, inundating expanses of Punjab and later Sindh provinces.

About 2,000 people were killed and 11 million left homeless. In all, more people were affected - 18 million - than in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Pakistan's 2005 earthquake, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined.

The country suffered more than $10 billion (6 billion pounds) in damage to infrastructure, irrigation systems, bridges, houses and roads.

More than 800,000 families remain without permanent shelter, according to the aid group Oxfam, and more than a million people need food assistance.

Fears that hungry, angry hordes up and down the Indus river basin would rise up in revolution or throw their lot in with Islamist insurgents have proved unfounded.

But with so many struggling to rebuild their lives, the impact of the floods has yet to play out and bitterness might still undermine a fragile civilian government.

"Hina Rabbani Khar came here about a week after the flooding but she did not visit the flooded area," said Rana Farmanullah, 28, of Mehmood Kot, a badly hit village in Punjab province, referring to a senior government politician who is now foreign minister.

"We're not going to vote for her in the next election."

The disaster certainly hasn't helped those Pakistanis striving to shore up the shaky foundations of civilian democracy in a country where the army has ruled for more than half its 64-year history.

GRATEFUL

President Asif Ali Zardari came under withering criticism for pressing on with a European visit and refusing to fly home as the disaster unfolded.

Widespread perceptions of a tardy, bumbling response to the disaster has compounded dissatisfaction over a range of issues for a government hoping to become Pakistan's first to serve out a full term, due to end in 2013.

Only 28 percent of Pakistanis express any confidence in their government, a recent poll by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Centre found. Only 19 percent approve of leaders such as Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, who head the Pakistan People's Party-led coalition.

The military, on the other hand, which led flood rescue efforts as government officials dithered, is much more favourably viewed, with 78 percent having confidence in it.

"After the floods people were living on sandbanks," said one survivor, who gave his name as just Farmanullah. "The army rescued them and helped them return home. So we are more grateful to the army."

Though military intervention can never be ruled out in Pakistan, there is no sign of any intention to do so now, nor does the government appear in imminent danger of collapsing as it lurches from crisis to crisis.

"There was a lot of resentment among the people against the government," Shafqat Mahmood, a former government minister and political analyst said of the public's reaction to the flood.

"(But) in the parliamentary system ... unpopularity among the people in the mid-term doesn't translate into the government resigning."

UNFINISHED PREPARATIONS

The rainy season has begun again but for now, there's no sign of a repeat of flooding on the scale of last year. That's just as well because little appears to have been done in terms of preparations for a repeat.

"The civilian government in Pakistan is still very young,"

Neva Khan, country director for Oxfam in Pakistan, told Reuters.

For years, not enough has been done to protect people before disasters strike, she said.

"There hasn't been the investment in the civilian government institutions that would help prepare the country for disasters ... The mindset is very much, 'Let's let a disaster happen and then we'll respond'."

In Sindh province, work on flood protection is unfinished as the new rains fall because of a lack of funds.

"The repair and strengthening work on many embankments is still continuing," said a provincial official.

Oxfam said flood reconstruction would cost about $10.9 billion, almost one quarter of the national budget.

But the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, both major donors to Pakistan, say investment of $27 million to strengthen disaster management and map flood hazards could reduce the risk of disaster and save billions in the long run.

Ahmed Kamal, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority, said the floods last year were a "once in a lifetime" disaster, nevertheless, authorities would be better placed to handle anything similar.

"We are better prepared," he insisted.

(Additional reporting by Faisal Aziz; Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Residents carry their belongings through a flooded road in Risalpur, located in Nowshera District, in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province July 30, 2010.  REUTERS/Adrees Latif
 
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