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Pakistanis decry slow, disorganized flood relief

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People carry their belongings Monday after a heavy flood destroyed their homes in Nowshera, Pakistan.

People carry their belongings Monday after a heavy flood destroyed their homes in Nowshera, Pakistan.

Associated Press

MOHIB BANDA, Pakistan — Standing in the rubble of what used to be his house, Gul Wali on Monday pointed to a small, green burlap bag and explained why most residents of his flood-ravaged village no longer rush to where military helicopters continue ferrying aid.

The bag, one of the relief packages dropped by Pakistani government helicopters, contains a box of dried milk and a few bottles of water and Pepsi. It won't sustain a family of six, and with just $35 in his pocket, Wali says he can't fathom how he'll rebuild his home or replace the Toyota Corolla taxi that helped him make a living.

"We have gotten virtually no aid or support from our government," Wali says, a gaunt, weary man in a tunic caked in mud.

As floodwaters recede in northwest Pakistan and officials begin assessing the extent of destruction caused by last week's record-breaking monsoon rains, which killed hundreds of people, frustration among the region's survivors is growing over what they say is a plodding, disorganized relief effort.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that at least 2.5 million Pakistanis have been affected by the floods, the worst in the country's history. Estimates of people killed in drownings, landslides and building collapses have varied from the government's official tally of 773 to the Red Cross' figure of 1,100.

Most of the deaths have occurred in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a region still trying to rebuild from large-scale military offensives that the Pakistani army launched against Taliban insurgents last year. With the destruction caused by last week's floods, dozens of bridges, roads and hospitals as well as the region's communication networks will have to be rebuilt, provincial officials said. Especially hard-hit was the Swat Valley, a former haven for Taliban militants that had been retaken by the army and was trying to reclaim its role as the country's most popular tourist destination.

The province's chief minister, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, said the floods "pushed the province almost 50 years back."

In the province's Nowshera region, one of the hardest-hit areas, hundreds of homeless Pakistanis have been living in a roadway median, huddling underneath propped up tarps or swaths of canvas to escape blistering heat. Thousands of acres of wheat, corn, sugar cane and tobacco fields have been submerged in the farming region.

In Mohib Banda, a village of 7,000, dead sheep and cattle carcasses litter the hamlet's lanes and roadsides, stoking fears that water-borne disease will spread.

Government officials, meanwhile, acknowledged the challenges of providing adequate relief, saying they could not afford to do so without outside help.

"Dealing with such a large number of flood victims is not possible by the provincial government alone," said Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain. "We need the help of the people, the federal government and international donor agencies."

An emergency relief official said the government was doing its best, but that the efforts were not going smoothly.

"There are problems," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the situation. "And the main problem is lack of resources."

The U.S. has pledged $10 million in aid and supplied rescue helicopters, inflatable rescue boats, water filtration units and 12 prefabricated steel bridges as temporary replacements for destroyed highway bridges.

Pakistan's army has assigned at least 30,000 troops to help rescue stranded villagers and assist in relief efforts. Since Thursday, when most of the destruction caused by the floods occurred, Pakistani military helicopters and rescue boats have evacuated more than 20,000 people, many of whom were stranded on rooftops for days. The government has also begun setting up relief camps where flood victims can get shelter, food and clean drinking water.

Frustration over the government's handling of the crisis is growing.

Political opponents of President Asif Ali Zardari criticized the Pakistani leader for going ahead with a planned visit to Europe this week while many families struggle to find food.

Naseer, a 30-year-old bicycle repair shop owner in Mohib Banda who, like many Pashtun Pakistanis, goes by one name, said he and his wife resorted to feeding their 2-year-old daughter rice that had gone bad several days earlier because they had nothing else.

"She didn't want to take it," said Naseer, as villagers behind him plodded by with mud-caked televisions, bed frames and other belongings on their backs. "We had to force her to eat it so she would survive."

(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times. Visit the Los Angeles Times on the Internet at www.latimes.com/ Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.