Desperate times

Winter in northern Pakistan came late but with a vengeance, unleashing three days of rain and snow this week that is adding to the misery of the earthquake survivors. It has resulted in grounding relief flights and causing landslides that cut off road access to many affected areas. The survivors deprived of proper food and a roof over their heads are staring at another grave disaster. They now face the winter’s wrath. This cruel weather is worsening health conditions in remote areas, and weather-related fatalities and illnesses such as pneumonia are on the rise. These illnesses are life-threatening for everyone, but especially children, the elderly and women.

Shelter remains the top priority. Many of the survivors do not have any form of shelter yet. People squeeze under overhangs and any other cover they can find to protect themselves from the rain and snow. Crowds of children and men huddle around wood fires for warmth. Wintertime shelters are desperately needed to avert a feared “second wave of deaths” in the mountainous regions rocked by a quake that has already claimed a confirmed 87,000 lives. The UN says it has received $ 240.7 million in quake relief, with an additional $ 19 million in pledges — only 47 percent of the $ 550 million it said it needed to get survivors through to the April thaw. So much for donor sympathy.

Frustration levels are rising as people wait for tents but receive other items they do not need. There have been reports of violence and looting, almost all a result of desperation. The incident the other day of 50 survivors forcing their way onto two UN aid helicopters and demanding to be airlifted from the disaster zone speaks of the extreme level of desperation. With each passing hour, the mountains are becoming a playground of human agony and helplessness. It is natural and perhaps to be expected that those who see their children dying from cold and starvation can resort to any sort of measures to save their families’ lives.

The international donors should be chastised for failing to materialise their tall pledges. All the hoopla about the success of the International Donors’ Conference on November 19 last year has turned out to be empty and hollow rhetoric. The pledges exist only on paper. Not only have the donors let the survivors down, so has the government. The inadequacy of what the government could do has been quite evident from the word go. With officials making excuses that the rehabilitation process is a mammoth exercise that will run for many months, they are silent about the possible number of deaths because of the lack of proper shelter. The indifference of the international donors and incapacity of the government could lead to many more deaths, and the toll could eventually end up being equal to the direct earthquake causalities. It is time that the government pulls up its socks.

If all else fails, the government should start evacuating people from the worst affected areas. They should not force people to leave, but make arrangements for those willing to abandon their home areas for more salubrious surroundings, at least until spring. Just leaving them there without proper shelter is the height of inhumanity. Larry Hollingsworth of the UNHCR has been pleading, begging, beseeching. The message: within weeks the snows will come and “we will be digging the bodies of children from the mountainsides.” Their deaths, this time, would have nothing to do with the lack of lifting equipment and other rescue deficits, but everything to do with the weary indifference of the donors and the poor planning and implementation of the government.


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