SUKKUR, Pakistan — Hungry, bewildered and bedraggled villagers are arriving by the thousands in Sukkur, a town in southern Pakistan, only to find that little or no help is available.
Trucks and buses arrive in wave after wave with sacks, beds, and mattresses piled high and the passengers, usually women and children, perched precariously on top. Others wander into the outskirts of town with their herds of buffalo, their most valuable possession, having walked for days with shotguns strapped to their backs to ward off the bandits that menace the countryside.
Many of those fleeing the flooding are now sleeping on the sides of the roads, under bridges and at the railway station in oppressive heat and humidity.
The slow-motion disaster in Pakistan as the floodwaters seep into virtually every corner of the nation could open the door to a Taliban resurgence, officials say.
The United Nations said Monday that Pakistan's floods, now in their third week with a death toll estimated at 1,600, have affected 13.8 million people, more than the combined victims of the three most recent major natural disasters: this January's earthquake in Haiti, the 2005 quake in northern Pakistan and the 2006 Asian tsunami.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani called the scale of physical damage "beyond imagination. … Our country has gone back several years."
Pakistan can ill afford that kind of regression as it battles an insurgency that capitalizes on the government's failure to provide basic services.
Over the past year, Pakistan's army has succeeded in driving Taliban fighters out of key sanctuaries in South Waziristan and the Swat Valley. But the damage from the floods could jeopardize those gains, officials acknowledge, unless infrastructure is quickly rebuilt.
Swat, one of the worst affected areas, is a prime example. Militants were able to take over there in recent years by capitalizing on residents' hostility toward a government that often seemed distant and indifferent.
Last summer, the army took the valley back with a major offensive, and it launched a series of public works projects intended to repair the damage. But then the floods hit. Army officials say that every major bridge in the valley was destroyed, and aerial photographs of the region show that rivers have been diverted — perhaps permanently — down the center of thriving bazaars.
"It will take us months just to get the electricity back in Swat,'' said Rahim Dad Khan, the planning minister for northwestern Pakistan.
Army officials say they are aware that the Taliban could try to seize the opportunity, but that they will not let that happen.
"We have not let down our guard. The safeguards are still in place," said Brig. Gen. Tippu Karim, who is overseeing relief efforts for Swat and other northwestern areas.
Karim said reconstruction will be the top priority as soon as Pakistan can get past the immediate challenge of rescuing stranded residents and providing them with food and shelter. But even that has proved a monumental challenge, and by the account of the floods' victims, the government has failed.
Islamic charities, including ones that are known fronts for banned militant groups, have begun distributing assistance in some areas, as have Western non-governmental organizations. But for the most part, residents say they are receiving no aid at all.
"This is the basic reason for militancy: anger at the government," said Obaid ur-Rehman, 26, one of thousands of displaced villagers who have set up tents in a median strip of a national highway that links the northwest with the rest of Pakistan. "If we had a place to live, if we had food, if we had schools, there would be no militancy in Pakistan."
Mohammed Riaz, a fellow median resident, said the only sign of government assistance he has seen in the 10 days since floodwaters destroyed his home came when a helicopter swooped low. From the side of the chopper, soldiers dropped packages of food. A mad scramble ensued. But the contents turned out to be rancid, and the government's gesture added to the hostility.
The floodwaters began to reach the province of Sindh over the weekend, and Sukkur, at the northern tip, is a focal point for the still-growing disaster.
Under an overpass near the railway station, several hundred people are living on the sides of the road. They had no water or food, surviving on charity from townsfolk. They said they had been turned away from government relief camps, which were full.
"The ministers, the VIPs pass this spot in their motorcades, but they don't stop," said Shaukat Ali, 45, who had arrived in Sukkur with 200 people from a village in Kashmore district who now were living under the overpass. "If they're not going to give us anything else, at least give us drinking water."
Said Mukhtiar Ali, Shaukat's brother, "The government has done nothing for us. No medicine, no food, no water, no tents, no blankets."
Information from McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Post was used in this report.