Pakistan President makes first visit to flood zone

The floods have scoured Pakistan`s Indus river basin, killing over 1,600.

Sukkur: Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari flew in to a flood-hit area on Thursday for a first look at the two-week-old crisis after criticism over trips abroad and his government`s perceived slack response.

The floods, triggered by torrential monsoon downpours, have engulfed Pakistan`s Indus river basin, killing more than 1,600 people, forcing two million from their homes and disrupting the lives of about 14 million people, or 8 percent of the population.

The deluge, which began two weeks ago, has caused extensive damage to the country`s main crops, agriculture officials said, after the United Nations appealed for USD 459 million in emergency aid and warned of more deaths if help didn`t arrive.

Agriculture is a mainstay of the economy. The International Monetary Fund has warned of major economic harm and the Finance Ministry said the country would miss this year`s 4.5 percent gross domestic product growth target though it was not clear by how much.

Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, set off on visits to meet the leaders of Britain and France as the floods were beginning.

Two days after returning home, he arrived in the city of Sukkur on the banks of the Indus river in the southern province of Sindh to inspect the destruction and aid efforts.

"He is going for a briefing on the damage and on protection measures and relief and rehabilitation measures," said presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar.

Officials from the government and international agencies are still assessing the extent of the flood damage, but a spokesman for UN humanitarian operations said a third of the country had been affected.

Hundreds of roads and bridges have been destroyed from northern mountains to the plains of the southern province of Sindh, where the waters have not yet crested.

Countless villages and farms have been inundated, crops destroyed and livestock lost. In some places, families are huddled on tiny patches of water-logged land with their animals, surrounded by an inland sea.

People have been jostling for food at distribution points throughout the disaster area, with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when hungry people break their fast at dusk with a special meal, adding to people`s anxiety.

"The government ... should provide clean water and clean food to the people," said Mohammad Ali, a bread maker scrambling for supplies in the northwest. "Ramadan has arrived, but we see no sign of the government giving us any of these things."

Billions of dollars

The costs of rehabilitating the agriculture sector could run into the billions of dollars, said UN humanitarian operations spokesman Maurizio Giuliano.

The wheat, cotton and sugar crops have all suffered significant damage and the United Nations has warned of a second wave of death among survivors from disease and food shortages unless help arrives quickly.

The military, which has ruled the country for more than half of its 63-year history, has taken the lead in relief efforts, reinforcing the faith many Pakistanis have in their armed forces and highlighting the comparative ineffectiveness of civilian governments.

Analysts say the armed forces would not try to take power as they have vowed to shun politics and are busy fighting militants.

The United States announced on Wednesday more helicopters and aid to beef up relief efforts. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the US military was tripling the number of helicopters from six to 19 and was sending in a landing platform to be used off the coast of Karachi, Pakistan`s biggest city.

The United States needs a stable Pakistan to help it end a nine-year war by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Some US officials are worried that the Pakistani military might have to draw soldiers off the Afghan border to help rescue flood victims, giving militants breathing room.

Investors in Pakistani stocks have been fretting about the costs and the market has lost more than 5 percent since the floods began.

The Pakistani meteorological office forecast scattered rain with a chance of thunderstorms across much of the country.

Bureau Report