KARACHI: Pakistan`s beleaguered authorities braced for a deluge in the country`s farming heartland, evacuating half a million people from at-risk areas in the south as the worst floods in living memory worsened.
The overall number of people affected by the two-week-old crisis has risen to more than four million after the floods washed away entire villages in the northwest, and anger at the government response is intensifying.
With the death toll already numbering 1,500, authorities in the densely populated southern province of Sindh warned that major floods were expected this weekend in fertile agricultural areas along the swollen Indus river.
"We have a target evacuation of at least 500,000 people who live in 11 most vulnerable districts," said provincial irrigation minister Jam Saifullah Dharejo, saying many towns and villages were in danger.
Further north in Punjab, an AFP reporter Thursday saw an exodus of people streaming out of flooded villages, wading barefoot through water, cramming belongings onto donkey carts and into cars under heavy rain.
"Altogether, more than four million people are in one way or another affected," said Manuel Bessler, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Pakistan.
"What we are facing now is a major catastrophe," he said.
Officials warned that dams could burst as heavy rain lashed the Punjab town of Kot Addu, transforming the area into a giant lake.
"All these villages are dangerous now. We are evacuating the population. Important installations are in danger," said Manzoor Sarwar, police chief for Muzaffargarh district.
Survivors lashed out at authorities for failing to come to their rescue and provide better relief, piling pressure on a cash-strapped administration straining to contain Taliban violence and an economic crisis.
"Everybody is leaving. We came out empty-handed. We didn`t have enough time to take our belongings," Ghulam Mustafa, 26, told AFP in Mehmood Kot, a village about six hours` drive south of Lahore, the capital of Punjab.
Particular scorn has been heaped on the deeply unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari for pressing ahead with a visit to Europe at the height of the disaster.
Although Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said "relief items in sufficient quantity" have been provided, many people say they have received no assistance from the government.
Islamic charities -- some with suspected links to extremist militants -- have been steeping into the breach on the ground, as international aid steps up.
UN special envoy Jean-Maurice Ripert Thursday visited affected areas in the northwest, where officials say water levels are receding even as the flood surge begins to menace Pakistan`s more populous south.
As Zardari prepared for talks Friday in London with Prime Minister David Cameron, British charities grouped as the Disasters Emergency Committee launched an urgent appeal on TV and radio for donations.
"In the aftermath of the floods, there is a serious risk to survivors from potentially deadly diseases which will spread as a result of contaminated surface and drinking water," a DEC spokesperson said.
The US government -- which warned Thursday that Al-Qaeda`s core in Pakistan remains the "most formidable" terrorist group threatening the United States -- has now pledged a total of 35 million dollars in flood aid.
US military helicopter relief missions are going into the worst-hit northwestern regions, the US embassy said.
BDST: 10:04 HRS, August 05, 2010