- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — About 800,000 people have been cut off by floods in Pakistan and are reachable only by air, the United Nations said Tuesday, adding it needs at least 40 more helicopters to ferry lifesaving aid to increasingly desperate people.

The appeal was an indication of the massive problems facing the relief effort in Pakistan more than three weeks after the floods hit the country, affecting more than 17 million people and raising concerns about possible social unrest and political instability.

“These unprecedented floods pose unprecedented logistical challenges, and this requires an extraordinary effort by the international community,” said John Holmes, U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Earlier, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said hundreds of health facilities have been damaged and tens of thousands of medical workers displaced.

Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, the country’s chief meteorologist, warned that it would be two weeks until the Indus River — the focus of the flooding still sweeping through the country — returns to normal levels. Mr. Chaudhry said high tides in the Arabian Sea would slow the drainage of the Indus into it. Those tides, he said, will begin changing on Aug. 25.

“The flood situation is not yet over,” Mr. Chaudhry said, adding that the Indus would reach peak flood stage late this week.

The floods began with hammering monsoon rains in the northwest and have swept southward.

Many of those cut off are in the mountainous northwest, where roads and bridges have been swept away.

The United States has deployed at least 18 helicopters that are flying regular relief missions, but the United Nations said it would need at least 40 more heavy-lift choppers working at capacity to reach the estimated 800,000 stranded in the country.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that about 700,000 Pakistanis have been forced into makeshift settlements just in the southern province of Sindh.

While there have been no major disease outbreaks because of the floods, aid agencies increasingly are worried, saying contaminated water and a lack of proper sanitation already were causing a spike in medical problems in camps for the displaced.

Pakistan and its people are experiencing the worst natural calamity of its history,” Mr. Gilani said at a meeting on health issues in the flood zone. “As human misery continues to mount, we are seriously concerned with spread of epidemic diseases.”

More than 3.5 million children are at risk from waterborne diseases, he said, and skin diseases, respiratory infections and malnutrition are spreading in flooded areas.

The problem is compounded by the flood’s impact on the country’s medical system, which long has been badly overstretched and underfunded. Mr. Gilani said the floods had damaged more than 200 health facilities and about one-third of the country’s 100,000 female health workers have been displaced. Those health workers are the main primary medical care to millions of rural Pakistani women.

Dr. Jahanzeb Orakzai, Pakistan’s national health coordinator, said a team has been formed to oversee the response to any flood-related health emergencies.

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