Pakistan earthquake: A tragedy the world forgot

The Pakistan earthquake brought devastation - now it could get much worse
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The Independent Online

Six weeks after the massive earthquake that devastated parts of Pakistan, the United Nations and relief agencies are racing against time to avert a horrendous, avoidable humanitarian tragedy.

As winter closes in, aid agencies fear the world's failure to react quickly enough to their pleas for help has made a second disaster a terrifying prospect. About 80,000 died in the immediate aftermath of the quake, and the agencies believe another 80,000 could now perish. As the first heavy snowfalls hit the high valleys most affected by the earthquake, senior UN officials warn that up to 380,000 people in these areas still need emergency housing over the next two or three weeks, almost double earlier estimates.

At the same time, despite many promises of long-term help from the international community, immediate relief aid is still only trickling through at a fraction of the speed it is needed. According to official figures, only $216m (£125m) has so far been committed or pledged to the UN's relief appeal for $550m, less than 40 per cent. By comparison, at the same stage, the appeal for the Indian Ocean tsunami, was almost 90 per cent complete.

Pakistan announced last weekend that its request for $5.2bn in aid had now been exceeded, with more than $5.4bn in pledges. But relief agencies say that most of this referred to long-term loans, rather than immediate help. "We need more money and we need it now," said a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York. "We are still at the life-saving rather than the reconstruction phase and our operations are dependent on the flow of money coming in."

Andrew Macleod, the UN's chief of operations in Pakistan, said aid money had been "very slow" in coming through. "Most of what was pledged last weekend was 'soft loans' for the future, not aid now." He added: "Over the next couple of weeks or so, we have to house between 350,000 and 380,000 people who are living on the edge of the snowline or who will come down from above it. Then we need to keep up the supply of food and medicine." He added: "We have to distribute between 800 and 1,000 emergency shelters every day and 40,000 tents over the next 15 or so days to protect people from the winter"

A report by Oxfam said earlier warnings that the aftermath of the earthquake could kill as many as the disaster itself, still held true. " Tragically, with hundreds of thousands of people still unable to provide for their basic needs and winter weather rapidly descending, that possibility cannot be wholly excluded," Oxfam said. The Red Cross in Pakistan said it was a "race against time". The organisation was the first agency to deliver aid to the village of Chham in the Jhelum valley, where about 4,000 households are inaccessible by road because of landslides, and will soon be inaccessible even by helicopter when snow sets in within the next 15 days. The first of the heavy snowfalls - which can measure as much as 15ft in villages such as Rinja and Chittrian near Chham - have already begun, and many people are still without tents or warm clothing.

Privately, some UN officials express deep concern at the slow trickle of aid. "I was at the meeting of donor countries after the tsunami and it was like an auction, with countries trying to outbid each other with what they could offer. By comparison, the Pakistan donor conference in October was very low key, with lots of speeches of condolence and promises of money, but very little hard cash. It was quite shabby," an official in Geneva said.

Both the UN and relief agencies believe the slowness of aid is due to a combination of the lack of media coverage at the outset, due to the inaccessibility of the stricken areas and the purely practical fact that, after a year of such tragedies, the coffers of many countries are exhausted.

Suggestions of anti-Muslim bias are unproven, says Oxfam, which pointed out that one of the richest Islamic countries, Saudi Arabia, has so far given only $3.2m, although it has promised a further $140m. The biggest international donor is the United States, with $102m given and $53m pledged to the appeal. The UN says the key is to persuade countries to convert pledges to contributions.

In Britain, the Government is expected today to announce a further " substantial" increase to the £33m so far committed in short-term aid after Downing Street was convinced of the "serious crisis" in the region, said a spokeswoman for the Department of International Development. A further £70m in long-term aid has also been offered.

The Government is expected at least to match the £40m in contributions from the public, which the Disasters Emergency Committee stressed was already being used to distribute food, tents, medicines and supplies.

The statistics

Casualties: 80,000 perished in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. Aid agencies say 100,000 are in 'a very weak condition' and at imminent risk of dying

Housing: 3.5 million people lost their homes in the quake and at least 80,000 people urgently need housing in the few days remaining before the snows close in

Aid blunders: Many of the 370,000 tents distributed are unsuitable for the winter. At least 40,000 tents and 15,000 shelters need to be distributed quickly

Hunger: The World Food Programme estimates that 2.3 million people will need feeding over the winter

Aid gap: The UN called for $550m in immediate aid, but only $150m has been committed with pledges for another $65m

Britain's effort: The British Government has contributed £33m in short-term aid and pledged £70m in the long term. Private donations to charities have topped £40m

To donate to the British Red Cross Asian Earthquake Appeal, go to www.redcross.org.uk/asianearthquake, phone 08450 535 353 or send a cheque to British Red Cross Asian Earthquake Appeal freepost LON18968, Sheffield, S98, 1ZA

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