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500,000 Himalaya Quake Survivors Face Winter Without Shelter


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on Himalayan Earthquake

The One month after the earthquake that devastated northern Pakistan and has killed at least 73,000, some half a million people are still without shelter. For the aid agencies it has become a race against time to reach remote mountain villages with shelter kits and tents before the bitter Himalayan winter descends. If snow falls before aid gets to survivors, Pakistan could be facing another humanitarian crisis with thousands of deaths.

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday the UN Flash Appeal is currently just 15 percent funded, with USD $85 million of $550 million committed. In addition there are $49 million in unconfirmed pledges, which if confirmed, will bring the total response to 24 percent.

UN agencies and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have forecast a current shortfall of $42.4 million needed to carry out the most immediate life-saving activities during the month of November alone, without which many programs will have to close. Funding is desperately needed for shelter, camp management, logistics and early recovery.


Some 3.5 million people were affected by the earthquake, which measured 7.5 on the Richter scale, across an area of 30,000 sq km. Most hospitals, schools and government buildings were destroyed. Landslides have blocked roads, rockslides are a constant danger and villages perched high on isolated mountain ranges and deep in remote valleys mean hundreds of thousands of survivors have still not received aid.

The IOM says the emergency shelter situation has improved, with tents donated by the international humanitarian community totalling some 132,000 and an additional 241,000 provided by the Pakistani government. But the IOM says even survivors with tents are still in danger, as the equipment must be winterized and able to withstand the harsh onslaught of rain, wind and snow.

The IOM is also trying to distribute shelter repair kits, which allow people to salvage the remains of their homes. For residents of villages above 1,524 metres this is lifesaving equipment as many of their settlements will become cut off and inaccessible in the coming weeks as the winter snows arrive.

"Getting shelter up to the mountains and gearing up to deliver shelter is a top priority as the roads are cut and this is the high-risk area," said Annika Timonen, IOM Emergency Coordinator. The IOM and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have planned Operation Winter Race, a program aiming to deliver 10,000 shelter repair kits to highland villages before the worst of the winter.

But it is not only survivors in remote mountain valleys who are without shelter. One month on, many survivors in the city of Muzaffarabad, the destroyed capital of Pakistani Kashmir, have still not received tents.

Tariq Eqbal, a civil engineer, has been sleeping next to the ruins of his house in the Bagh area of Muzaffarabad. Once home to government workers and wealthy residents, all that remains now is a tangle of devastation, with rubble blocking the streets.

"We've no tent and there's not enough drinking water," said Eqbal. "We have to travel 5 km to a mountain spring for water." Eqbal lost his mother in the earthquake and many of his neighbors were buried beneath their collapsed homes.

Mounds of crumbled ruins are all that remain of most of Muzaffarabad, and in the town center the smell of dead bodies still hangs thick in the air.

"We know that there is a family buried under there," said Imran Alishah, a stallholder in the city's Medina market. "I know they were sleeping above their stall when the earthquake struck, but how can we get them out?" he said, holding a scarf to his nose to block the stench. Two nearby buildings toppled on the stall, leaving a gigantic mess of bricks, shattered glass and metal. The stallholders of Medina say there are many bodies still buried there.

"I still haven't got a tent for my family and water and food is a problem, otherwise I would try to get help to get the bodies of my friends out of here," said Alishah.

Alishah has been sleeping near the ruins of his house with his family. "Out in the open under the stars is where we've been sleeping," he says. "It's cold, but we're getting used to it now, although we're scared about winter coming. We need to get a tent before then otherwise we won't survive."

In Jalalabad Park a camp has sprung up with rudimentary toilet facilities – plastic curtains hiding holes in the ground. Many survivors here have erected shelters out of pieces of wood, corrugated iron and detritus salvaged from the ruins of the city. Razian Bibi sleeps in one such hut measuring no more than 3 metres by 2 metres, sharing this tiny space with nine others. "I have four children and I have no blankets for them," she said, stirring a pot of lentils on a stove made out of an upturned oil can with wood as fuel. "It's cold and we need a tent."

Residents like Bibi are scared the government will make them leave the park as this camp is not officially recognized. "They said that we will have to move to another camp, but with my four little children, moving is hard, we want to stay here," said Bibi.

The number of camps in Muzaffarabad is not known, as most are ‘spontaneous' areas where residents have gathered and put up tents and makeshift shelters. One aid worker said there were over 17, but as most of these camps are not official, residents face evacuation.

British charity Oxfam warned this week of a looming health crisis in the tented camps.

"Unless conditions are improved in these camps, diseases like cholera could spread like wildfire," Oxfam's earthquake relief head, Jane Cockin, said. "If disease does break out in the camps, the number of deaths could far exceed those in danger in their villages."

The cold has resulted in a surge in acute respiratory infections, with much worse to come in the next few weeks if the shelter situation is not resolved, said Dr Khalid Shibib, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Muzaffarabad.

The priority for the WHO, as with many aid agencies, is reaching survivors in isolated valleys and highlands before they become inaccessible due to winter snow.

"Respiratory infections are from the cold, from a lack of shelter, and you can die from it," Shibib said. The earthquake destroyed 41 percent of all hospitals, as well as most rural health centers. More than 75,000 people were injured and are in need of urgent medical or surgical care.

Now Shibib warns that poor sanitation, lack of safe drinking water and inadequate shelter could pose a threat of disease. There have so far been cases of diarrhoea and the health ministry says there have been some 1,130 cases of dysentery, 139 cases of tetanus, of whom 41 have died, and several deaths from measles.

"The health picture now is less and less injuries from the earthquake and more and more communicable diseases," Shibib said.

Some 790,000 children aged between five and 18 years are estimated to have been affected by the earthquake and 10,000 schools damaged or destroyed. Assessments by the education ministry have highlighted the need for tents to serve as temporary schools as well as training 25,000 new teachers.

But with worsening conditions, the threat of disease outbreaks and the desperate need for basic provisions, such as tents, a severe lack of funds is impeding the aid effort. Some say the poor donor response is a result of ‘donor fatigue' due to a recent glut of natural catastrophes, such as Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami, leaving donor countries feeling financially drained.

The Pakistani government announced it will start compensation payments of about $416 per family for the loss of their homes, but survivors say they just want shelter.

"All I need is a tent," said Alishah.

"I just want to appeal to the international community to help us. We know that they have given a lot of money to the tsunami, but all we ask is that they don't forget about us," he pleaded. "Otherwise we'll die in the cold."


© IRIN
[Integrated Regional Information Networks is a project the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]

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Albion Monitor November 7, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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