LONDON (AlertNet) - Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis whose lives have been devastated by recent floods will likely receive no aid at all, and the international community may never understand the full extent of the disaster, a top Red Cross official said on Thursday.
The floodwaters started rising in late July and took weeks to move down the Indus river from the north to the south of the country. Pascal Cuttat, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Pakistan, said the drawn-out nature of the crisis and its huge geographic scale have made it difficult for aid agencies to assess and respond to the emergency.
"It means that the number of people affected in this slow-moving disaster is something we'll never know ... and the combined capacity of international actors with national actors, including the (Pakistani) armed forces, will not be good enough," he told AlertNet in an interview.
"There will be hundreds of thousands Â? or even millions Â? who have received absolutely nothing, and the impact on the social fabric in these areas will be hard to work out."
At its peak, the flooding was estimated to have affected around 20.6 million people across the country. The latest bulletin from the United Nations, issued in late October, says some 7 million require emergency shelter, and 8 million out of the 10 million who need food aid are receiving it.
Cuttat said figures on the humanitarian impact of the flooding could be no more than "best estimates" because it has not been possible to go from village to village to count the numbers affected, nor to speak to every local authority in disaster-hit areas.
Even though the efforts made by both international aid agencies and the Pakistani authorities - including the military - have been "quite good", the humanitarian community has been overwhelmed by what Cuttat described as an "extraordinary" event.
"We are just doing the best we can - it's a huge operation and we are limited by capacity," he said.
In the north of the country, where the floodwaters have largely subsided, the response is entering what aid workers call the "early recovery" phase, as many of those displaced head home. Aid activities at this stage include building transitional shelters and providing farmers with seeds, fertiliser and agricultural equipment.
But in the southern province of Sindh stagnant water is still covering low-lying land, and there is a persistent need for emergency aid, including food, shelter, clean water and medical assistance.
Cuttat said it will be several months before the longer-term consequences of the disaster - and the lack of aid for many - become clear. People in Pakistan's southern provinces, the nation's poorest, were already living a hand-to-mouth existence before the floods, and losing their livestock and homes could drive them away from rural areas for good, he warned.
"If they get nothing, many will have to choose between trying to make the most of what little there is where they are, or moving to urban centres," he said.
NO IMPROVEMENT IN ACCESS
In other parts of the country, the situation has been further complicated by armed violence involving government troops and pro-Taliban militants, which uprooted hundreds of thousands in the northwest early this year. The floods hit areas where those displaced by fighting had sought protection and shelter, either in camps or with host families.
The government has restricted access for aid workers to parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as North West Frontier Province) and the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas since violence broke out, partly because of fears for their security.
But Cuttat said the onset of the flood disaster - and the resulting increase in humanitarian needs - have not led to improved access for foreign aid staff in these regions nor the southwest province of Baluchistan, which is beset by a long-running, low-level insurgency.
He added that the army is providing relief in out-of-bounds areas, but restricted access is reducing the effectiveness of the aid operation.
"It does mean that we cannot provide the full range of assistance activities unhindered in the way we would like," he said. "Expert access is the key to being able to deliver, and that often also means (access for) expats ... There are only so many Pakistani experts we can train."
Other aid agencies, including Merlin, Oxfam and Save the Children, fear that the government's refusal to allow the U.N. humanitarian air service to fly helicopters in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa could stop them bringing in enough supplies to remote mountainous areas before the onset of cold winter weather.
Cuttat said that, given the complex nature of Pakistan's humanitarian emergency, the country is likely to need assistance for some time to come.
"The armed violence is continuing and Pakistan is prone to natural disasters, so we have to be ready to respond in a volatile situation in the long run," he said.
While serious discussions about reducing the risk of disasters have begun at the national level, putting measures into practice remains extremely challenging.
"We have to recognise that the task is monumental," Cuttat said. "In many areas, armed violence and natural disasters combine to make such a difficult situation, and with the (poor) security, it is not possible to do what needs to be done."