- Associated Press - Sunday, August 15, 2010

SUKKUR, Pakistan (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday the flooding in Pakistan was the worst disaster he had ever seen, and he urged foreign donors to speed up assistance to some 20 million people affected.

Mr. Ban spoke after flying over some of the worst-hit areas.

“This has been a heart-wrenching day for me,” he said alongside President Asif Ali Zardari. “I will never forget the destruction and suffering I have witnessed today. In the past I have witnessed many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this.”

The floods began more than two weeks ago and have hit about one-quarter of the country. Huge swaths of land remain under water, and hundreds more homes were flooded over the weekend.

While the death toll of 1,500 is comparatively small compared to that of other disasters, the extent of the flooding and number of people whose lives have been disrupted is staggering.

The world body has appealed for an initial $460 million to provide relief, but only 20 percent has been given.

Once the floods recede, billions more will be needed for reconstruction and for getting people back to work.

The International Monetary Fund has warned the floods likely will bring dire economic consequences in a country already reliant on foreign aid to keep its economy afloat and one that is key to the U.S.-led war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“Waves of flood must be met with waves of support from the world,” Mr. Ban said. “I’m here to urge the world to step up assistance,” he said.

Mr. Zardari has been criticized for his response to the disaster, specially for going ahead with a state visit to Europe just as the crisis was unfolding. Mr. Zardari has visited victims twice since returning, but images of him at a family-owned chateau while in France are likely to hurt him for months to come.

In his first comments to the media since returning, he defended the government.

“The government has responded very responsibly,” he said, saying the army, the police and officials were all working to relieve the suffering. “I would appeal to the press to understand the magnitude of the disaster.”

The monsoon rains that triggered the disaster are forecast to fall for several weeks yet, meaning the worst may not yet be over.

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