Nowshera, Pakistan — Amid wide complaints about an inadequate government response, private charities, including some linked to Islamic extremists, are stepping in to help victims of the worst flooding in Pakistan in decades, which has claimed some 1,500 lives.
Northwest Pakistan, the area worst hit by floods since last week, is also the region most affected by religious militancy and the threat of a takeover by the Pakistani Taliban. One of the deluged areas is the Swat valley, which the army had to wrestle back from Taliban control in a major offensive last year.
The United Nations said that about 1 million people are homeless and 80,000 homes were destroyed in four northwestern districts it surveyed.
Floodwaters ripped down bridges, washed away crops and swallowed roads. Save the Children, an international charity, said Monday that it was using donkeys to transport aid to some areas that were cut off.
The flood surge is following the course of the Indus river, which runs through the middle of Pakistan. The floodwaters are now moving south and threaten more destruction in Punjab and Sindh provinces.
The government and military say they have mounted a full-scale relief effort, but many local residents in the Nowshera district, which appears to have suffered the most, said the only help they’d seen from the state was the military airlifting stranded people from rooftops.
The flooding followed torrential rains that brought many times the annual monsoon deluge. According to the U.N., the floods are the worst since 1929 and water levels in the Indus are reported to be their highest in more than a century.
In Pir Pia village, in Nowshera district, there was no sign Monday of government assistance. Four schools in the village had been turned into makeshift camps to shelter those made homeless by a local charity.
Khaista Rehman, who owned a cloth shop, is now packed into a single room in a school building in Pir Pia village along with 33 members of his extended family. Both his home and business were destroyed in the flood.
“My house was two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the river. The water crossed my house, submerged it completely and went one kilometer further,” said Rehman, 26.
“There was no warning. By the time I gathered the children, the water was waist-high. We carried the children on our shoulders.”
Hard-line religious groups have jumped into the void of state aid. Among the Islamic groups handing out aid to the flood victims is Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the organization that’s widely considered a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. JuD often uses other names to disguise its presence.
“The JuD flags were flying, they didn’t bother hiding it,” said one aid worker, who’d been the group working near the town of Charsadda and asked not to be identified for fear of his own safety.
Tariq Sher had a scrap metal business by the side of the road in Nowshera. Its gates are still standing, but little else of his compound is. The building disappeared underwater, and it was only on Monday that it partly re-emerged, allowing Sher to try to rescue his stock. However, a small heap of tangled metal objects, now lying on the road, were all he found.
“There had been a whole community here,” Sher, said pointing to an area where a few walls could now be seen sticking out of the water. “Some media people have been here, but not a single representative from the government.”
Sher said the biggest problem people now face is a lack of clean drinking water, while the price of the food still available has doubled or tripled. There’s no electricity, and looters are ransacking shops, locals said.
In the scenic Swat valley further north, tourists returned this summer for the first time since the Taliban had swept the valley in 2007, only to be stranded by the floodwaters. Hundreds have had to be rescued by army helicopters. The provincial government warned Monday that there were signs of a cholera outbreak in Swat.
“People are making do with just rice, and I couldn’t even find that in the market today,” said Zubair Torwali, a social worker in Bahrain, a town in the upper reaches of Swat, by telephone. “No aid has come here.”
One factor that could have contributed to the extreme flooding in Swat is the deforestation that accompanied the Taliban takeover, Torwali said. With the landowners fleeing after being targeted by the Taliban, the timber smugglers joined hands with the Taliban to chop down as many trees as possible.
The U.S. government Monday announced $10 million in aid for the Pakistani flood victims.
(Maggie Bridgeman contributed to this report from Washington.)