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Little relief in sight for flood-ravaged Pakistan

By Dan Rivers, CNN
  • U.N. says 6 million need help in Pakistan, but aid effort hindered by floods
  • President Zardari criticized for going ahead with foreign trip despite crisis
  • Zardari now playing catch-up by visiting flood-hit areas
  • Food prices spiraling; 150,000 square kilometers underwater

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) -- Two weeks into the catastrophe engulfing Pakistan, little relief is in sight. The brooding, granite clouds menace almost daily, erupting into more downpours that top up rivers just as they recede. The meteorological office is issuing new floods warnings, and people are clinging onto life by their fingernails, in an agonizing wait for help.

We have seen a good cross section of this disaster and aid is conspicuous by its absence in many parts. It's not due to a lack of effort by charities and the government -- in many places they are simply unable to reach those most in need.

In some cases, the aid agencies have in turn become victims of this crisis: the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies showed us their warehouse in Nowshera, which remains under a meter of flood water -- $15 million worth of supplies going nowhere fast.

The U.S. Army has sent four Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters from Afghanistan to help ferry aid in and people out. As I write, they have plucked more than 3,000 people from danger and delivered 146 metric tons of aid, but it is a tiny fraction of the 6 million people the United Nations says are in need of emergency help.

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The problem for authorities is that this is a dynamic disaster -- moving, changing, evolving and growing. What started as flash floods in the Swat Valley has spread to much wider inundations in the Punjab and Sind.

Food prices are spiraling. We visited one market in Nowshera where tomatoes, onions and other basic staples have doubled in price. The U.N. is concerned this could get worse with 150,000 square kilometers underwater, much of it fertile, arable land --- the breadbasket of the country has been wrecked.

Video: View aid drop in flood-ravaged Pakistan
Video: Evacuating Pakistan's flood victims
Video: Food prices rise amid Pakistan floods
  • Pakistan
  • Natural Disasters
  • Floods

Pakistan's ambassador to the U.N., Abdullah Hussain Haroon, told a meeting this week the floods may knock 1 percent to 1.5 percent off GDP growth this year and that more people have been displaced than in the 2004 tsunami. Maurizo Giuliano, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the cost will run into billions of dollars.

The disaster is having political consequences, too. President Asif Ali Zardari is having his "(Hurricane) Katrina moment," according to Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani journalist and former adviser to the British Department for International Development.

Zardari has been criticized for going ahead with a planned trip to Europe, including a widely reported visit to the family chateau in France, while the death toll spiraled back home.

This may have been a political miscalculation. His spokesman has defended the trip, saying it was a triumph, an opportunity to drum up much-needed aid, but critics argue that even if he could have generated practical help, he should have been with his people.

Zaidi said it sent a message to the people: "Good luck with the floods, see you later. That's the last kind of message you want a democratically elected government to be sending; it defeats the very kind of politics that the PPP tries to run with in the country."

Instead, the unedifying symbolism of "Mr. Ten Percent" -- a nickname coined by his critics in reference to his alleged corruption; he spent 11 years in jail amid corruption allegations but was never convicted and always maintained his innocence -- inspecting his castle in France has been seized on by the opposition.

Now the president is playing catch up, with impromptu visits to the flood-hit areas.

For the Pakistan army, the Swat Valley was well-known terrain: last year, soldiers finally retook this area from the Taliban. Now they have a different challenge on their hands -- in the past two weeks, Islamist charities with alleged links to terrorist groups are here, handing out food.

"The government is not working properly that is why the people are working on their own self," said a man with one charity who did not want to be named. "We are joining hands with those people (the flood victims)."

It is a point that resonates here. The army spent weeks trying to crush the extremists who had occupied Swat. Now they are back under a different guise.