Pakistan reopens highway to speed up aid to flood victims

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani engineers and soldiers cleared a key highway on Thursday to enable aid workers to speed up supplies to survivors of devastating floods that have left hundreds of thousands homeless and killed 1,508 people, the majority of them women and children.

Traffic between the flood-hit city of Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province, and the southern Sindh province had been suspended for weeks after floods damaged the key highway. The blockage had forced the military to deliver aid to victims by helicopters and boats.

As they reopened the route, engineers in Baluchistan also restored the power supply for millions, according to a government statement. And the disaster’s deadly toll became more clear, with the United Nations’ children agency saying on Thursday that 528 children were among those killed in the floods.

The National Flood Response and Coordination Centre said this summer’s monsoons and the flooding — the worst-ever deluge in living memory — destroyed 390 bridges and washed away over 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) of roads across the country. The inundation of roads affected the government’s response to the floods, and people complained they were still waiting, weeks later, for the government’s help.

The crisis has affected over 33 million people, damaged 1.8 million houses and displaced over half a million people who are still living in tents and makeshift homes, according to the National Disaster Management Agency. The water has destroyed 70% of wheat, cotton and other crops in Pakistan. At one point, a third of the country’s territory was submerged under the floods.

But the government in a statement on Thursday insisted there was no shortage of food in Pakistan and that plans are being drawn up for imports of certain food items.

Initially, Pakistan estimated that the floods caused $10 billion in damages, but now several economists say the cost of the damages is more like $30 billion. That’s five times more than what Pakistan’s government will get under the 2019 bailout signed with the International Monetary Fund.

So far, 100 flights from different countries and international aid agencies have delivered the much-needed supplies, the Foreign Ministry said Thursday. The U.N. weeks ago urged the international community to generously help in relief, rescue and rehabilitation work.

On Wednesday, the U.N. resident coordinator in Pakistan, Julien Harneis, told reporters that the member states had so far committed $150 million in response to an emergency appeal for $160 million. So far, he said, $38 million pledges from the world community had been converted into assistance for Pakistan.

On Thursday, Palitha Gunarathna Mahipala, the representative of the World Health Organization in Pakistan, handed over medical equipment and medicines for flood victims to the provincial Health Minister Azra Fazal Pechuho in Karachi, the capital of Sindh, the country’s province worst hit by the floods.

Mahipala said at a news conference that he had visited flood-affected areas where WHO’s staff was on the ground, providing medical camps and mobile medical clinics. He said WHO will soon provide more aid, vehicles and boats to the Sindh government so that officials could use them to reach flood victims in remote areas.

Also, WHO has for the past several weeks been helping Pakistan in tackling the outbreak of waterborne and other diseases among flood victims in Sindh and elsewhere in the country.

The impoverished nation is diverting funds allocated for development projects to help flood victims. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif this week promised the country’s homeless people that the government will ensure they are paid to rebuild and return to their lives. With winter just weeks away, displaced people living in tents are worried about their future.

Sharif on Thursday traveled to Uzbekistan to attend a summit of a security group formed by Beijing and Moscow as a counterweight to U.S. influence. Washington is one of the most generous responders to floods in Pakistan. The United States has announced $50 million aid, which is being delivered by military planes.

On the sidelines of the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Sharif was also expected to brief world leaders about the climate-induced damages caused by the floods in his struggling Islamic nation.

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