KARACHI (Reuters) - A heat wave has killed nearly 800 people in Pakistan’s financial hub of Karachi and piled pressure on a beleaguered provincial government, as rivals blame it for severe blackouts and crumbling public services that have added to the woe.
The powerful military, which heavily criticized the government for corruption last week, is winning praise after it set up 22 health centres to distribute aid.
“They (the army) are at least handing out cold wet towels, juice and rehydration salt,” said Ahmed Sultan, as he squeezed a towel soaked in ice water over his sweat-soaked clothes at a military tent set up outside an overflowing public hospital.
“This government just keeps on giving us the death toll ... this government is a total failure.”
The heat wave has once again exposed Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government’s failure to fund social services, making for a glaring contrast to the military, which often takes the lead in responding to natural disasters.
The lion’s share of the national budget goes to the military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its history.
Public services in the nuclear-armed nation of 190 million people are starved of resources because almost all its wealthy evade taxes. Fewer than 0.5 percent of citizens pay income tax; many legislators are among the tax dodgers.
The death toll in Karachi, a city of 20 million people, had reached 780 by Wednesday, said Anwar Kazmi, a senior official of the Edhi Foundation, a private charity.
“We are planning to expand the Edhi morgue to cope with a situation like this in future,” he said.
Government health officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Angry lawmakers blamed each other in parliament for the crisis, feeding perceptions that the city’s political leaders are floundering after a week of temperatures that touched 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit).
Civilian and military officials traded barbs over corruption in Karachi, which is home to Pakistan’s main stock market, central bank and biggest port.
“Two years have gone by. Where are the government’s power projects?” demanded lawmaker Asad Umar, of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.
“Projects worth billions are not progressing because they are in the hands of incompetent cronies.”
The federal minister of water and power, Khawaja Asif, blamed the provincial government, led by an opposition coalition.
“If there is shortage of water in Karachi, that is not the federal government’s responsibility,” he said. “If the water board has not paid its bills, that is not the federal government’s responsibility.”
Provincial officials said they plan a protest against the power cuts outside the offices of utility K-electric, which supplies Karachi.
The cuts left many Karachi residents without working fridges, fans or water. Many of the deaths among the elderly and poor were caused by dehydration.
The company says it is doing its best to tackle the daily blackouts. Federal and provincial governments owe it more than $1 billion in outstanding bills, a spokesman said.
Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld and Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Clarence Fernandez