SUKKUR, Pakistan — Men waded waist deep all week wedging stones with their bare hands into an embankment to hold back Pakistan’s surging floodwaters. It was a rudimentary and ultimately vain effort to save their town. On Thursday, the waters breached the levy, a demoralizing show of how fragile Pakistan’s infrastructure remains, and how overwhelming the task is to save it.
Even as Pakistani and international relief officials scrambled to save people and property, they despaired that the nation’s worst natural calamity had ruined just about every physical strand that knit this country together — roads, bridges, schools, health clinics, electricity and communications.
The destruction could set Pakistan back many years, if not decades; further weaken its feeble civilian administration; and add to the burdens on its military. It seems certain to distract from U.S. requests for Pakistan to battle Taliban insurgents, who threatened foreign aid workers delivering flood relief Thursday. It is already disrupting vital supply lines to American forces in Afghanistan.
The flooding, which began with the arrival of the annual monsoons late last month, has by now affected about one-fifth of the country — nearly 62,000 square miles — or an area larger than England, according to the United Nations.
The government estimates that more than 5,000 miles of roads and railways have been washed away, along with some 7,000 schools and more than 400 health facilities.
One estimate, in a joint study from Ball State University and the University of Tennessee, put the total cost of the flood damage at $7.1 billion. That is nearly a fifth of Pakistan’s budget, and it exceeds the total cost of last year’s five-year aid package to Pakistan passed by Congress.
The damage to the electricity and power sector alone could run to $125 million, according to a government report shown to The New York Times.
The mountainous Swat Valley, which was still struggling to rebuild from the army’s campaign against Taliban insurgents, has lost every bridge and whole sections of its roads.
Great chunks of the famed Karakoram Highway — a celebrated feat of high-altitude engineering built by the Chinese over two decades — have disappeared as cliffs fell away in the torrent. The route, which winds hundreds of miles from the Chinese border in the Himalayas to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, may now be impassable for years, officials said.
The United States has agreed to help the World Bank and the Asia Development Bank conduct a damage and needs assessment for the Pakistani government. The figure is bound to be big.
The recovery cost will have to be met by a mixture of domestic money, international donations and loans from development banks, the administrator of AID, Dr. Rajiv Shah, said after a tour of flooded regions on Wednesday.