Pakistan: World fails to grasp scale of disaster


MUZAFFARABAD: The international community failed to grasp the scale of the South Asian earthquake and more than two weeks after the disaster, the response is still not enough, a UN relief official said Sunday.

Rashid Khalikov, the UN humanitarian aid area coordinator in this quake-hit capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, said international relief agencies were “still coming to grips” with the disaster, which killed more than 50,000 people and left more than three million homeless in difficult mountain territory. “Two weeks after the earthquake that devastated this region countless thousands (of people) need to be reached in high-altitude terrain,” he told reporters.

“In the first few days after the earthquake the world clearly did not comprehend the magnitude and complexity of the disaster. “Even now we are still coming to grips with the extent of the people’s needs as new information comes in from previously inaccessible areas.”

He said UN agencies, working alongside the Pakistan Army and non-governmental groups, had distributed 60,000 tents — nowhere near enough to protect the millions of destitute from the increasingly cold nights.

Another 190,000 tents were in the UN pipeline but more would be needed if the world body is to prevent what Secretary-General Kofi Annan called a possible “second wave” of deaths as winter bites in the Himalayan region.

“From a logistical point of view this is possibly the most challenging emergency relief operation that the international humanitarian community has ever faced,” Khalikov said.

In Azad Kashmir alone, “some 800,000 people, or 150,000 families, are believed to be without shelter,” he said. “The scale of this calamity is beyond the capacity of any one country. The support of the international community is vital and it is essential that donors contribute the necessary funds as soon as possible.”

He said only some $90 million of international aid pledges have been received in response to the UN’s flash appeal for $312 million for immediate relief operations. The flash appeal for last December’s Asian tsunami disaster was more than 80 percent funded within 10 days of the event.

Khalikov said the UN only had seven helicopters to help distribute its aid throughout the region. This would rise to 12 in the coming days but even then the world body would not have enough aircraft to do the job, he said.

As for tents, he said the world was being scoured for more. “All the tents available in the world are being eyed for this relief operation,” he said. He estimated that rescuers had only five or six weeks to get people under shelter before the harsh Himalayan winter sets in.

“Whether we are able to do it in six weeks or not, we will know only six weeks after today, but we will do our best,” he said as the confirmed death toll in northern Pakistan passed 53,000, with more than 75,000 seriously injured.

Those figures are expected to rise substantially, with untold numbers lying buried in the rubble of an estimated 2,000 villages yet to be reached and aid officials fearing a second wave of deaths among the untended injured. “Clearly much more needs to be done,” Khalikov said.

Source: Daily The News Monday October 24, 2005– Ramazan 19, 1426 A.H.

Mountains to climb

Will the public zeal ever be channeled into meaningful rehabilitation? Skepticism reigns in a country where mismanagement is a norm

By Rahimullah Yusufzai

Almost two weeks have passed and we still don’t know for sure the actual damage caused by the October 8 earthquake in Azad Kashmir and the North-West Frontier Province. The death toll has been climbing steadily as hitherto inaccessible mountainous areas are reached while the extent of the material losses is a matter of conjecture only. The inability of all concerned to fully understand the magnitude of the destruction wrought by the killer quake explains the huge challenge Pakistan is faced with in coping with the unprecedented tragedy.

By October 20, the Federal Relief Commissioner Maj-Gen Farooq Ahmad had raised the death toll from the earthquake by another 5,000 in the course of a couple of days to 47,723. But the same day, the NWFP government announced that 37,958 people had died in the province alone, which was previously believed to have suffered less than the neighbouring Azad Kashmir. Provincial information minister Asif Iqbal Daudzai argued that the number of dead increased dramatically due to the death of injured survivors who couldn’t be provided timely medical help. This was belated admission of the inability of the government, whether federal, provincial or the military that is spearheading the rescue and relief effort, to access the inaccessible mountain communities and offer them assistance. In fact, delayed government response to the tragedy and mismanagement in immediately sending foreign rescue teams to hardest hit places such as Muzaffarabad and Balakot prevented rescuers from saving precious lives of hapless survivors trapped under debris of fallen buildings. Pricking one’s conscious and heightening the feeling of collective guilt is the fact that children buried in the rubble of their school buildings constituted bulk of the survivors who could have been saved with timely intervention.

Adding to the confusion was a statement by Sardar Sikandar Hayat, prime minister of Azad Kashmir, who estimated 53,000 deaths in his devastated state. He wasn’t far from the point considering the fact that the remote Neelam and Jhelum valleys, named thus after the rivers that pass through the two mountainous geographical entities, had barely been reached more than a week after the earthquake. Rescue and relief workers, mostly belonging to private organisations, had started reporting destruction at a scale beyond estimates after walking for hours on precarious mountain paths to reach villages cut off from rest of the world due to destruction of roads and bridges. Military helicopters too had flown on dangerous missions through tough Himalayan terrain to airdrop much-needed relief goods to stranded mountain communities. One helicopter had crashed near Bagh in Azad Kashmir killing everyone on board including six soldiers and two civilians, one a survivor needing evacuation and another Peshawar University’s respected geologist-turned-aid worker Dr Hameedullah.

The dramatic rise in the number of casualties from the quake is prior warning of what to expect in the coming days and weeks. One shouldn’t be surprised if the final count of the dead reaches 100,000. Take into account those wounded, many losing their limbs after an unusually high number of amputations being performed by surgeons to prevent the spread of gangrene to other parts of the body, and we would have in our midst a significant population of handicapped and disabled needing rehabilitation and constant medical care. This reminds one of neighbouring Afghanistan where years of war and landmines have left thousands of Afghans limbless and disabled. For years, Pakistan would have its hands full as it tries to rebuild all that has been destroyed and provide the means to displaced and distraught families to start a new life. With almost 4 million homeless in the aftermath of the quake, the task ahead is truly stupendous for a poorly managed country with meagre resources and inefficient administration. There would be a need to divert resources from other sectors and the rest of the country, which again is going to be a painful decision in view of the fact that almost 40 per cent of the population is already living below the poverty line.

Politicians, more so legislators, are already competing for a share of the resources to fund vote-fetching projects in their constituencies and it would be politically difficult to convince them to agree to a cut in already allocated funds. As in the past, the government is slow in reconciling to the fact that the earthquake would have a damaging impact on Pakistanís economy. The political fallout of the quake would also be worth watching, with President General Pervez Musharraf gaining or losing points on the basis of his military-dictated government’s performance in handling the crisis.

Dire warnings by the UN, which has been efficiently one step ahead of the Pakistan government in assessing the damage to our infrastructure and highlighting the enormity of the challenge confronting the nation, of the risks posed to survivors, especially children, by worsening weather, injury and illness has painted a bleak future for life in the once bustling, tourism-friendly summer resorts that make up most of the 20,000-square kms quake-hit areas. The UN was the first to calculate the reconstruction cost of the quake-affected areas at an initial $ 5 billion and it helped raise the alarm by warning that 10,000 children could die within the next few weeks unless the international community made available helicopters, tents and other life-saving supplies. The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a dramatic appeal for urgent help from the world community to prevent a second massive wave of deaths in the wake of the quake and his deputies made a call for an increase in supply of essential items to save lives. This is reassuring because the international community’s assistance would be crucial in rehabilitating traumatised communities and rebuilding towns and villages that have been wiped off from the face of the earth. The unprecedented response of our people in trying to provide succour to the quake affectees has been another revelation. There is little hope that the zeal displayed by the nation could be channelled through well-meaning government policies backed by the world community to undertake the monumental task that lies ahead of us.

Source: Daily The News Sunday, October 23, 2005.