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Pakistan flooding victims betrayed by political feuds

Feuding and apathy among Pakistan's political leaders have hampered efforts to help victims of the country's worst flooding in 80 years, forcing the army to take over most relief work, and raising the profile of militant-linked Islamist charities.

Anger at the civilian authorities' chaotic response is particularly acute in northwestern Pakistan, where aid workers warn that many victims could choose, or be forced, to join the Taliban -- even as the army is distracted from its military operations.

Dozens of aid workers said the biggest problem was still the sheer scale of the floods, which have inundated an area twice the size of Ireland, killing 1,600 people, forcing two million people from their homes and affecting a total of 14 million.

But they also said their efforts were being slowed by the weakness of Pakistan's new National Disaster Emergency Authority (NDMA) which was set up after the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 to co-ordinate disaster relief.

NDMA has been completely blocked from setting up a branch in Punjab province by the local government, which is run by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League party of Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister. As a result, one UN official said, there were doubts about how the Punjab government -- which is compiling its own damage estimates -- had reached a figure of eight million "affected" by floods in the province.

"We're concerned about this very high number," the official said. "The problem is that 'affected' can mean different things if you are not all using the same standard."

Meanwhile, General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, has taken control of much of the relief operation -- bringing help to many victims, but undermining civilian authority in a country that has been under military rule for half its history.

Behind much of the confusion is the intense personal rivalry between Mr Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, the president and leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party

There is also deep-seated tension between Mr Zardari and the army, which is mostly recruited from Punjab, has close ties to Mr Sharif and resents the president's efforts to bring the military under stronger civilian control.

Mr Zardari's opponents have tried hard to focus public anger on him after he refused to cancel a visit to Britain and France last week. Mr Sharif, by contrast, visited northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province last week while the Punjab goverment distributed aid there.





Blame

It appears, however, that Mr Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, who is Punjab's chief minister, are largely to blame for the failure to create a single, strong national body to handle the humanitarian disasters that hit Pakistan on an almost annual basis.

The NDMA was set up in 2007 to co-ordinate all relief efforts by the government, army, international aid agencies and NGOs. Since then, it is supposed to have set up branch offices in each of Pakistan's four provinces and every one of its districts, with personnel trained to assess disaster damage and co-ordinate relief.

In reality, the NDMA has struggled to establish its authority among government and political leaders who show no real interest in improving Pakistan's disaster relief capacity, according to the UN.

hnews@herald.ie