South Asia

Pakistan floods: BBC reporter joins relief air mission

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Media captionOver 300 people have already been killed by heavy monsoon floods

There is only one way to get an idea of the scale of Pakistan's newest crisis, and that is from the air.

Floodwater has spread over much of the southern Sindh province like a murky green carpet - smothering villages and crops, destroying lives and infrastructure.

We flew over the disaster zone with the Pakistan air force, joining them on their first relief mission of this year's floods.

The helicopter was packed with sacks of aid. For the crew, it was standing room only.

As the chopper hovered near a ruined hamlet, the hungry came running. One man gazed upwards, gesturing repeatedly towards his mouth.

Once again flood victims are looking to the military. Many here despair of Pakistan's ineffective civilian government.

The crew dropped essential supplies including cooking oil, rice and milk, before moving on to another stranded community.

Staggering numbers

After the aid was gone, there was a reconnaissance mission over the sodden landscape to search for other flood victims. Pilots believe some have yet to be located.

"I absolutely believe there will be people who could not be seen right now," squadron leader Nasir Malik said from the cockpit, as he scanned the ground down below.

"But as we fly further missions they will be approachable, with the passage of time."

The air force says it will keep looking, and keep dropping aid, as long as there is a need. That could be some time.

Image caption About 3m people in southern Pakistan are now facing food shortage, the UN says

The numbers affected by the torrential monsoon rains are staggering.

At last count the estimate is more than 7.5m people, and the figure is continued to rise.

Of these, about three million are critically short of food, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

More than a million houses have been damaged or destroyed, and almost 4m acres (1.6m ha) are under water.

'Where is everyone?'

On the ground in Sindh, we saw mile after mile of destroyed communities. Flood victims were everywhere - on levies, on rooftops, and often on the roadsides in makeshift camps.

But a key piece of the puzzle was missing: any sign of an international relief effort matching the scale of the disaster.

In four days of driving around the province we came across just one aid distribution: a lone tanker dispensing water in the badly hit district of Badin.

"Where is everyone?" asked Mark Pearson, a field operations specialist with the UK charity Shelterbox, which began its relief work more than six weeks ago.

"I got a call in the first week of August to say that the situation was really bad, and we got moving straight away."

Image caption People and animals in the affected areas are forced to use the same contaminated water

The charity has already distributed 3,200 shelter kits, each containing a 10-man tent, blankets, cooking utensils and water purification equipment.

"Personally I'm really frustrated by the fact that people have been living in the mud, in appalling conditions for weeks," he said.

"It's already costing lives, with the spread of waterborne diseases. I'm shocked that the international community has either forgotten, or doesn't care."

Lethargic response

But the government in Islamabad was slow to request international assistance.

President Asif Ali Zardari waited until 8 September to ask for help. At that stage more than five million lives had already been disrupted by the floods.

Since then the international effort has been grinding into gear: UN agencies have begun distributing emergency aid including tents, food and water.

"We responded immediately once we were asked," said UN spokesperson Stacey Winston.

"Officially for us to go in and set up shop, we have to be asked. Within days of the government's request the World Food Programme had reached 140,000 people and the World Health Organization had reached hundreds of thousands with essential medical help."

And what of the government's own relief efforts?

This year, as last year, Pakistan's leaders are being criticised for a lethargic response to a growing emergency - though this time they are at least present in the country.

During a whistlestop tour of flood affected areas, I asked Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani if more lessons could have been learnt from last year.

"You can't compare the two," he said. "Last year there was flooding from the Indus River, this year it's from the rains."

That distinction probably won't mean much to the many flood victims living under the open skies.

The prime minister stressed that fewer lives had been lost this year - around 350, compared with up to 2,000 in 2010 - and he denied the government was ill prepared.

"We were all set for any sort of eventualities. But the magnitude is so large, so huge, that one government cannot control the situation."

Mr Gilani was speaking in a relief camp in the district of Mirpurkhas, where he handed out bags of aid to a select few men and women.

They sat on the ground, in a neat line, waiting patiently for their turn.

Vishan, one of the lucky few, told us they were drinking the same contaminated water as their animals.

Last on the list

Image caption Ghehnu said he had no money to seek help for his ill infant son

Many cannot afford to wait much longer for help.

In a makeshift camp in Badin, we met a young father called Ghehnu whose only son was getting weaker by the day.

Twelve-month-old Raja, whose name means King, laid across his mother's lap, crying weakly and arching his tiny body in pain. He was suffering from diarrhoea.

"He was OK before," said Ghehnu," but when the rains started he got sick. If we had money we would bring him to a doctor. But we are poor. I am worried for my son but what can I do?"

Ghehnu is a lower caste Hindu, like many other flood victims in the area. Religious minorities expect to be last on the list when there is aid to be given out.

It has been two weeks since local officials evacuated families from Ghehnu's flooded village, and deposited them in Badin.

The villagers have not seen them since.

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