SUKKUR, Pakistan — The cost of rebuilding Pakistan after its devastating floods could exceed $10 to $15 billion, the country's High Commissioner to Britain said on Monday.
He said this was a rough estimate because an assessment of the extent of the damage caused by the floods — which have affected 20 million people — had yet to be carried out.
But the number gave an indication of the scale of the reconstruction needed after the floods swept away roads, bridges and telecommunications, and destroyed crops for food supplies, exports and cotton for its vital textile industry.
"It will take at least five years," High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan told Reuters in an interview. Asked about the cost of rebuilding, he said, "I think more than $10 to $15 billion."
Pakistan, already embroiled in a battle against Islamist militants, is appealing for international aid to help it cope with one of the worst natural disasters in its history.
The United Nations says only a quarter of the estimated $459 million in international aid needed just for immediate relief has arrived so far.
Protesters block highway
Pakistani flood victims, burning straw and waving sticks, blocked a highway on Monday to demand government help as aid agencies warned relief was too slow to arrive for millions without clean water, food and homes.
Public anger has grown in the two weeks of floods, highlighting potential political troubles for an unpopular government overwhelmed by the disaster that has killed at least 1,600, made two million homeless and in total has disrupted the lives of at least a tenth of its 170 million people.
Hundreds of villages across Pakistan in an area roughly the size of Italy have been marooned, highways have been cut in half and thousands of homeless people have been forced to set up tarpaulin tents along the side of roads.
"We left our homes with nothing and now we're here with no clothes, no food and our children are living beside the road," said protester Gul Hasan, clutching a large stick.
Hasan, like fellow protesters, has been forced from his village and sought refuge in Sukkur. He and others were camped under tattered plastic in muddy wasteland beside the road.
Dozens of stick-wielding men and a few women tried to block five lanes of traffic outside Sukkur, a major town in the southern province of Sindh. Villagers set fire to straw and threatened to hit approaching cars with sticks.
On Sunday night, hundreds of villagers burned tires and chanted "down with the government" in Punjab province.
"We are dying of hunger here. No one has showed up to comfort us," said Hafiz Shabbir, a protester in Kot Addu.
Aid not keeping up with need
But aid has failed to keep pace with the rising river waters.
Only a quarter of the $459 million aid needed for initial relief has arrived, according to the United Nations. That contrasts with the United States giving at least $1 billion in military aid last year to its regional ally to battle militants.
Protester Kalu Mangiani said government officials only came to hand out food when media were present.
"They are throwing packets of food to us like we are dogs. They are making people fight for these packets," he said.
Aid workers have expressed concern not only about the level of aid, but the outpouring of protests.
"The speed with which the situation is deteriorating is frightening," Neva Khan, Oxfam's country director in Pakistan, said in a statement.
"Communities desperately need clean water, latrines and hygiene supplies, but the resources currently available cover only a fraction of what is required."
But even in places where aid packages are arriving, the distribution is difficult. Efforts in the Shahpur valley illustrate the some of the difficulties with distributing aid. Authorities there have enlisted 30 donkeys to help reach remote mountain villages. Police are guiding the animals, strapped with flour, rice, cooking oil and sugar, up narrow paths — a trip which takes four hours each way.
Long-term economic pain
Once the floods recede, billions more dollars will be needed for reconstruction and getting people back to work in the already-poor nation of 170 million people. The International Monetary Fund has warned the floods could dent economic growth and fuel inflation.
The potential for long-term economic pain could shave more than one percentage point off economic growth, analysts have said.
Pakistani stocks ended down 2.9 percent on fears the impact on growth may be more damaging than estimated after Sunday's warnings.
Respite from rain, but floods continue
Authorities forecast on Monday a brief respite in rains.
Water levels in the Indus River feeding Pakistan's plains have fallen in Punjab, the country's most populous and worst hit province, although flooding would stay high where embankments were breached.
In Sindh province, flooding could get worse. The province's irrigation minister, Jam Saifullah Dharejo, said the dam in Sukkur faced a major test of its strength as floodwaters coursed down the Indus River into Pakistan's highly populated agricultural heartland.
"The coming four to five days are still crucial," he said.
"In Punjab, the water level in the river is falling and in the next 4-5 days ... there will be scattered rains, but they are not flood-producing," Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, director general of the meteorological department, told Reuters.
'It seems if it will never stop'
On Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged donors on to quicken up aid and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani warned of a second and third wave of floods.
Despite a possible break in heavy rains, many families had little hope of returning to their homes.
"We only hear that the water is receding but there is still more and more water in our village," said Mansha Bozdar, 45, whose village borders the Sanawan town in southern Punjab.
"It seems if it will never stop."
The U.N. has reported the first case of cholera amid fears that disease outbreaks and has voiced fears that disease in overcrowded and unsanitary relief camps could yet cause more deaths.
"As humanitarians we certainly are on high alert because we have to be able to be prepared for any kind of development," said U.N. spokesman Maurizio Giuliano. "We don't know which way it's going to go. More flooding is certainly possible."
Slow government response
The government has been accused of being too slow to respond to the crisis with victims relying mostly on the military — the most powerful institution in Pakistan -- and foreign aid agencies for help.
Despite the government's perceived failure to tackle the crisis, a military coup is unlikely. The army's priority is fighting Taliban insurgents, and seizing power during a disaster would make no sense, analysts say.
In Sukkur, hundreds of people set up camp along a sliver of dry land between the swollen Indus and a low concrete wall by a road running alongside the river.
But their sanctuary has been getting ever narrower as the river rises. On Monday, the muddy bank was just a few feet wide in some places and the water was still coming up.
"Where can we go?" asked Faiz Mohammad as he squatted on the concrete wall. "Everywhere is flooded."
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.