Pakistan crisis termed `most difficult' ever

Winter's near, millions need shelter after quake

October 21, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- United Nations and private aid workers said yesterday that the pressing need to shelter up to 3 million Pakistani earthquake survivors before the harsh Himalayan winter sets in is threatening to become one of the greatest human disasters the world has ever faced.

Compounding the problems posed by the sheer number of people displaced - three times as many as were affected by the Indian Ocean tsunamis in December - are the mountainous terrain and the onset of a winter that is likely to arrive in less than three weeks and sever the stricken mountain hamlets of the north from the rest of the country until spring.

And yet, whether out of fatigue after a year of seemingly endless natural disasters or simply because the quake struck in Pakistan, aid officials say, the international response has been weak. Even in the face of the epic destruction, foreign donors have so far pledged less than $90 million, or barely a quarter of the $312 million that the United Nations estimates it will need for immediate relief.

"It's the most difficult humanitarian crisis ever," said Andrew Macleod, chief operations office in the U.N. Emergency Coordination Center in Islamabad, "because the scale is huge, the logistics are so difficult and there's such a brutal winter coming on." In recent days, as his office assessed the damage across the far-flung hamlets dotting the Himalayas, the most credible estimates turned out to be "the worst-case scenarios," Macleod said.

"We have never seen anything like this," he added. The quake struck an isolated, mountainous area of about 11,000 square miles, slightly smaller than Maryland.

The death toll has risen to 49,700, Pakistan's disaster response chief, Maj. Gen. Farooq Javed, said yesterday. The injured were tallied at 74,000. But central government figures have lagged behind regional numbers. The regional figures, from officials in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province and Pakistani Kashmir, added up to about 78,000 dead.

About 1,300 people were killed and 30,000 families left homeless in the neighboring Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. India opened up phone lines this week for families on its side to communicate with friends and relatives on the Pakistani side.

At a news conference Tuesday night, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, suggested that the Line of Control that divides the Pakistani and Indian parts of Kashmir be opened as well.

India, which has sent three consignments of quake relief to Pakistan, has welcomed the proposal in principle but has said it awaits details of how it would work. The spokeswoman for the Pakistani Foreign Office, Tasnim Aslam, said last night that discussions about logistics were under way within her government.

Comprehending the scope of the crisis and deciding how to respond are extremely difficult. It is next to impossible to count the number of hamlets and homes scattered in the hills, and no accurate population count exists.

Of the few roads that cross the hills and valleys, many have been cut, and the continuing aftershocks prompt landslides that block them all over again. The people who live in the hills are unable or unwilling to abandon their land and go down to the lowlands, where aid is available.

Even with helicopters from abroad, there were fewer than 80 working helicopters in the country as of yesterday, 12 days after the earthquake. U.N. officials say they need many more. In perhaps the starkest statement of need, there are not enough cold weather tents in the world to house what the International Organization for Migration estimates to be up to 550,000 families left homeless by the quake.

The snow will surely come before enough can be made. How many people will have to survive the winter without shelter is unclear. U.N. officials estimate that it would be in the tens of thousands.

"I think there is a requirement for the world community to realize the enormity of the challenge we are facing because of the nature of the terrain and the devastation," Javed said yesterday.

Raphael Sindaye, the relief coordinator for South Asia of Oxfam, the international aid group, described his predicament. The day after the quake, he resolved to order 60,000 tents, to house roughly 300,000 people.

Then he looked at the availability of tents: It would be four months, deep into winter, before all those tents could arrive. Yesterday, he said, he slashed his tent order by half. If aid groups like his are all forced to reduce their tent orders, where, he wondered, will the rest of the homeless go?

"I'm really afraid the international community will not be able to cope with the disaster," he said, "simply because we can't reach people."

He said he was now planning to ask survivors what they could use to build their own shelters. "I'm hoping people out there will tell us, `If we get this, this and this, we'll be able to do this, this and this' and survive," he said. "I can't imagine what that would be."

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