Tens of millions of Pakistanis were battling the worst monsoon rains in three decades on Monday, which have killed at least 1,136 people, washed away countless homes and destroyed vital farmland.
A third of Pakistan is now “under water,” national climate change minister Sherry Rehman said in an interview with AFP, referring to a “crisis of unimaginable proportions.”
The monsoon rains, which began in June, are “unprecedented in 30 years,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said Monday as he toured the affected areas of the north.
A huge relief operation was underway in Pakistan, where international aid was slowly starting to arrive. Meanwhile, the Indus, the country’s main river, threatened to burst its banks.
Pakistani officials blame the devastating weather on climate change, saying their country is suffering the consequences of irresponsible environmental practices elsewhere in the world.
More than 33 million people, or one in seven Pakistanis, have been affected by the floods, and nearly one million homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, the government announced.
According to the latest death toll from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) as of Monday, the monsoon had claimed at least 1,136 lives since it began in June, including 75 in the past 24 hours.
But authorities were still trying to reach remote villages in northern mountainous areas, which could add to the toll.
“Everything is just one big ocean, there is no dry place to pump water from,” noted Mr.me Rehman, adding that the economic cost, which has yet to be quantified, would be devastating.
The monsoon, which usually runs from June to September, is essential for irrigating plantations and replenishing the water resources of the Indian subcontinent. But every year it also brings its share of drama and destruction.
The effects of climate change
According to Mme Rehman, these storms are even worse than those of 2010, when 2,000 people were killed and nearly one-fifth of Pakistan was submerged by monsoon rains.
People displaced by the floods have taken refuge in makeshift camps set up across Pakistan.
“Life here is miserable. Our self-respect is at stake,” Fazal e Malik, who is staying with about 2,500 others on the grounds of a school in Nowshera, in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told AFP.
“I stink, but there is no place to take a shower. There are no fans,” he added.
Pakistan has received twice as much rainfall as usual, according to the state weather service. In the southern provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, which were the worst hit, the rainfall was more than four times the average for the past 30 years.
Near Sukkur in Sindh, where a massive colonial-era dam on the Indus River is vital to prevent the disaster from worsening, a farmer lamented that his rice fields had been lost.
“Our plantations covered 2,000 hectares, on which the best quality rice was sown and eaten by you and us,” Khalil Ahmed, 70, told AFP. “All that is over.”
The head of the dam assured that the bulk of the water flowing from the north of the country through the river was expected to reach the structure around September 5, but said he was confident it would hold up.
The dam diverts water from the Indus River into thousands of miles of canals, which form one of the world’s largest irrigation networks. But the farms thus served are now completely flooded.
Economy in crisis
The NDMA claimed that more than 80,000 hectares of cultivable land had been ravaged, as well as more than 3,400 kilometers of roads and 157 bridges, washed away.
Water is hampering relief efforts, which are being supervised by the Pakistani army.
The government declared a state of emergency and called for help from the international community. On Sunday, the first planes bringing humanitarian aid arrived from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
These floods come at the worst time for Pakistan, whose economy was already in crisis.
The International Monetary Fund on Monday agreed to resume a US$6 billion loan program that is critical to the country. But it is already clear that Pakistan will need much more to rebuild the infrastructure destroyed by the floods.
The United Nations and the Pakistani government will formally launch a $160 million appeal on Tuesday to fund emergency aid to Pakistan, which is suffering from historic floods, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general said Monday.
Prices of basic foods are soaring, and supply problems are already being felt in Sindh and Punjab provinces.