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'Now or never' aid plea for quake victims at risk from harsh winter

More than two million people have been left homeless by the earthquake with the harsh Himalayan winter approaching. The UN says it only has enough money to keep its fleet of helicopters operating for one more week. With many victims stranded in remote mountain valleys, they are essential to the aid effort.

The World Food Programme says it has enough food to feed 500,000 people over the winter, but 2.3 million need to be fed. There is also a shortage of 200,000 tents, according to the International Organisation for Migrants.

"We need at least $200m to $250m now," the UN's emergency co-ordinator, Jan Vandemoortele, said yesterday. "If we don't have that we will fail. Frankly, I don't know how to say this any more clearly in plain English: it's now or never. We will not have a second chance. At the very latest we need it today. Tomorrow will be too late for thousands and thousands of victims, especially babies and small children vulnerable to pneumonia, diarrhoea, malnutrition, etc."

At a donors' meeting in Geneva this week, countries pledged $580m for long-term reconstruction in payments that will only come through in the coming months. But they only came up with $16m in immediate funds. That "is not enough", a spokeswoman for the UN's humanitarian agency Unocha, Elizabeth Byrs, said yesterday. "We need money immediately to be able to reach people now, not in two to three months because people will be dead by then," she said.

In the quake-affected regions, winter is expected to set in within three weeks. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) yesterday warned that long-range forecasts were predicting an unusually harsh winter. Temperatures are predicted to be "well below normal", staying below freezing throughout the day from December to February, and as low as -20C at night in January.

"Snowfall is expected to considerably exceed the normal range, both in frequency and quantity," said WMO spokesman Mark Oliver. Normal snowfalls in the mountains are 6ft deep. Last winter, heavy snowfalls were 10ft deep.

The International Organisation for Migrants said yesterday it had temporarily abandoned efforts to get more tents in because the shortage was so severe, and was trying to get supplies to people to help them make basic repairs to their homes.

At least $50m is needed to keep the UN's helicopters flying beyond next week. The World Health Organisation warned that, without helicopters to evacuate the sick, infected wounds will kill victims. At least 24 people have already died from tetanus after their wounds were not treated in time. The World Food Programme said it had received 16 per cent of funding for its emergency appeal. "We need the money now to preposition the food stocks, before mountain roads are cut off, not in February," said its spokeswoman, Christiane Bethiaume.

International aid organisations have warned that the failure of the relief effort could prove to be as big a disaster as the earthquake itself.