SUKKUR, Pakistan — The United Nations appealed Wednesday for $459 million in emergency aid for Pakistan as fresh monsoon rains raised fears that new flooding could drive more people from their homes, deepening the humanitarian catastrophe.
Storms lashed the mountainous northwest, close to the border with Afghanistan, and the northeastern Gilgit region, swelling rivers that empty into the central Indus River before it reaches the city of Sukkur in southern Sindh province, which already is full of people displaced from surrounding areas.
More flooding would prevent vital repairs to Indus River embankments and dikes that protect farmland, allowing water to spread even further when the fresh flows reach Sukkur sometime next week, officials warned.
"Once this peak passes, another flood is being formed in the mountains and then a third," Sindh's irrigation minister, Saifullah Dharejo, said in an interview. "If we cannot plug the breaches (in the embankments), the water will keep expanding out."
"This is a grave situation," he said.
Sindh is now the focus of the worst floods in Pakistan's history. They reached the province after washing down the Indus River valley, powered by unusually fierce monsoon rains that began in northern areas of the country some three weeks ago.
The deluge has left a trail of devastation, destroying roads, bridges and other infrastructure and overwhelming the government's ability to cope. It's affected some 14 million people, of whom an estimated 1,600 have been killed and about 2 million left homeless.
The overwhelmingly Muslim country of 170 million, a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, already had been struggling to cope with an economic crisis and Islamic militants allied with al Qaida when the disaster hit.
The United Nations appealed Wednesday for emergency aid, warning that even those who'd been saved from drowning were threatened with sickness and hunger.
"If we don't act fast enough, many more people could die," said John Holmes, the U.N. humanitarian aid chief, in New York. He called the disaster "one of the most challenging that any country has faced in recent years."
In Sukkur, the head of Sindh's provincial government, Qaim Ali Shah, dismissed the amount of international aid pledged so far as "peanuts."
The U.S. will be beefing up its assistance to the relief effort with 19 helicopters from the U.S.S. Peleliu, an amphibious assault vessel that is deploying off the Pakistani port city of Karachi, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced Wednesday in Tampa, Fla.
The helicopters will be used to distribute food aid and ferry displaced people. The ship's aircraft will replace six U.S. military helicopters that were diverted from missions in Afghanistan.
At the Sukkur Barrage, 1.13 million cubic feet of water per second was rushing through the 66 gates of the mile-wide flood-control barrier, which the former British colonial government built on the Indus in 1932.
Experts think that the flooding at Sukkur probably will ebb Thursday, but with more rain falling in the north, the water will remain high and the next onslaught of flooding could push it even higher, they said.
"Rainfall (in the north) takes about a week to reach Sukkur," said Muzammil Qureshi, a retired engineer formerly in charge of irrigation for Sindh. "All five rivers converge before Sukkur."
The onslaught has burst dike banks, drowning hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland in Sindh alone.
Only from the air do the scale of the disaster and the remoteness of the affected villages become apparent.
A McClatchy reporter toured the region around Sukkur on a Pakistani army helicopter and saw mile after mile of water, swamp-like in some places, like the open sea in others. Thatched roofs and the tops of trees rose above the water. The outlines of abandoned villages were just visible beneath the surface.
The helicopter pilots had been diverted from battling Taliban militants in the Waziristan region bordering Afghanistan. Around 60,000 Pakistani troops are participating in rescue efforts, raising concerns about the country's anti-terrorism campaign.
When the helicopter swooped low, it became apparent that there were people struggling to survive in the watery landscape, marooned in dozens of villages on slightly raised ground. Women, men and children could be seen in waist-high water, their buffaloes wallowing in groups.
Hundreds of people had taken refuge on raised embankments, built to hold irrigation channels or dirt roads, but they were stranded without food or shelter from the ferocious sun. Goats, donkeys and trunks of possessions kept them company.
While the military continues to rescue people, many others are refusing to leave their villages, hoping for the water to recede. However, the fresh onslaught that's on its way from the north could make survival all but impossible.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Nancy A. Youssef and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
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