Leading article: An inadequate response

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The Independent Online

Those dealing with the aftermath of the south Asian earthquake are faced with a logistical nightmare of unprecedented proportions. And the situation grows more desperate by the day. The quake itself killed an estimated 79,000 people in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. But this calamitous death toll is certain to rise dramatically unless survivors receive food, medicines and shelter urgently.

Some three million people have been made homeless by the tremor and have no protection against the bitter Himalayan winter. Hypothermia will kill thousands unless help comes. Medical supplies for the injured are urgently needed, too. Some are already beginning to die of tetanus. Many urgently need to be evacuated by air from their cut-off villages.

Pakistan - the nation most severely affected by this disaster - has responded as well as can be expected for a relatively poor country, working in an inaccessible region. But the response of the international community has been inadequate. More helicopters should have been sent to the region. Sixty are in operation and 20 more about to join them. Yet, as the United Nations disaster chief Jan Egeland pointed out yesterday, what is required is an operation on the scale of the 1948 Berlin airlift. Nato resources should also have been mobilised sooner. The organisation only began flying in supplies from Turkey yesterday - almost two weeks after the disaster struck.

World governments have been miserly in pledging funds. Only $86m (£48.6m) has so far been offered out of the $312m (£176.2m) the UN has requested. Ninety-two countries pledged financial help following the tsunami. This time, only 20 countries have so far heeded the call.

Gordon Brown is proposing a new emergency world fund into which countries would pay and from which humanitarian co-ordinators would immediately draw funds when a crisis occurs. This would certainly be preferable to the present scramble for money that we see in the wake of natural disasters. But the people of Kashmir cannot wait for such a scheme to be established. They need help now.

The timing could not be worse. The Western public has been asked to donate many times in the past year, first to help the victims of the tsunami and then those of the New Orleans hurricane. There is inevitable talk of "compassion fatigue" at an individual and government level.

But it is vital Western countries do all they can now. Pakistan is a Muslim nation, and Kashmir a hotbed of radical Islamism. The West has a chance to help dispel the myth in the Muslim world that there is a Western-sponsored war on Islam. More important even than this is our moral duty to help save as many lives as possible. Now is the time for action - not apathy.

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