Before the snows

November 03, 2005

It's easy to forget the children of the Allai Valley. They live in a part of the world that many of us couldn't find on a map. A ferocious earthquake flattened their remote, mountainous villages in northwest Pakistan. Survivors of the Oct. 8 quake that killed more than 73,000 people - nearly half were children - are among the 1.9 million victims who lack the basics to survive, specifically food and shelter. Couple that grim statistic with the disparity in emergency aid pledged for the relief effort and actual dollars in hand and you have a post-quake calamity in the making as the Himalayan winter approaches.

United Nations officials say donor fatigue is part of the problem in a year plagued by tsunamis, hurricanes and famine. Sixty countries pledged $1.3 billion in assistance to Pakistan, but that aid is not necessarily cash or readily available. The immediate emergency requires $550 million. But the U.N. has received only $131 million in pledges, and of that, only $71 million is on hand as its agencies race to save lives.

The logistics of this campaign compound the problem because more money and expertise are required to assist victims in this quake region than would be needed in a more accessible part of the world. An infusion of cash isn't the only answer. Russia and China could assist the Pakistani government by volunteering military aid, helicopters - the only mode of transport suitable in these mountainous regions - and specialized units trained for this kind of work.

Hardest hit were Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and the North-West Frontier Province, the region of the Allai Valley. Despite their bitter standoff over Kashmir, India and Pakistan have recognized the dire needs of quake victims and agreed to relax some travel restrictions to permit passage between the two sides. India also pitched in $25 million for its neighbor.

The housing situation is indeed critical. Relief workers don't have enough survival tents to shelter 600,000 families from the winter snows - and manufacturers can't replace them fast enough. One group, Save the Children, is providing heavy-duty plastic (delivered recently by the United States) to families as a substitute. Although disease outbreaks have not been reported, some relief workers are seeing more tetanus among the injured.

The consequences of not acting now will prove fatal for many. As Bruce Rasmussen, a Save the Children coordinator in Islamabad, put it: "Now is the time to save lives, not tomorrow."

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