Humanitarian Disaster Unfolding in Pakistan's Mountains

GENEVA, Switzerland, October 20, 2005 (ENS) - At least 48,000 people lost their lives in the earthquake that struck northern Pakistan, India and Kashmir October 8, United Nations officials said today. But figures from local officials across the affected region put the death toll closer to 79,300. All officials predict that the toll could increase as wounded and homeless people without shelter succumb to the increasingly cold weather.

The UN is making an all-out effort to save the lives of half a million survivors in remote mountain regions, but the world body's top relief coordinator says reaching them has become a nightmare race against time.

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Survivors of the October 8 earthquake await relief supplies. (Photo courtesy United Nations)
“The race against the clock is like no other one. There is like a terrible cut-off for us in the beginning of December, could be even before, when there will be massive snowfalls in the Himalayan mountains,” Under-Secretary General Jan Egeland told reporters at Palais des Nations in Geneva today.

“We are putting in all our combined UN resources at the moment. It is not enough," Egeland said. "We have never had this kind of logistical nightmare ever. We thought the tsunami was as worse as it could get. This is worse,” he said.

The December 2004 tsunami killed more than 250,000 in a dozen Indian Ocean nations. The current emergency is the reverse with more wounded than dead people, Egeland said, putting the number of severely wounded people at approsimately 67,000. There is now an exponential growth of infections, gangrene, tetanus and other diseases, he said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan Wednesday called for an "immediate and exceptional escalation" of the global relief effort.

"A second, massive wave of death will happen if we do not step up our efforts now," Annan said at UN headquarters in New York. He called for 450,000 more winterized tents and temporary shelters and two million blankets and sleeping bags to deal with the quake, which has left at least three million people homeless.

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UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pleads Wednesday for intensified relief operations to reach thousands of earthquake survivors isolated in rough terrain. (Photo courtesy UN)
The logistics of reaching suvivors in mountainous terrain "makes this one of the most challenging relief operations ever undertaken," Annan said, warning that 10,000 children in remote area could die within the next few weeks unless helicopters are able to drop shelter and food quickly.

The Secretary General asked international organizations to join an “immediate and exceptional escalation” of relief operations, and he also called for doubling the UN revolving emergency fund from its present level of $500 million to $1 billion.

So far donors have made firm commitments for only $37 million, or 12 percent, of the UN Flash Appeal of $312 million, Annan said. By contrast, the Indian Ocean tsunami Flash Appeal at the beginning of the year was 80 percent funded within 10 days of the disaster.

"Next week," said Annan, "I will be attending the emergency donors' conference in Geneva convened by the United Nations. We expect results. I urge governments and other organizations to attend at the highest level. There are no excuses. If we are to show ourselves worthy of calling ourselves members of humankind, we must rise to this challenge. Our response will be no less than a measure of our humanity."

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) warned that tens of thousands of children are in peril due to worsening weather, injury and illness, and 10,000 could die of hunger, hypothermia and disease within the next few weeks unless immediate steps are taken to boost the number of those reached by relief.

UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said Wednesday that as many as 120,000 children in the mountains are still without access to aid.

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The sandals and cotton clothes of these earthquake survivors are no match for the freezing temperatures of the oncoming winter. (Photo courtesy UN)
"Temperatures have dropped and weather conditions are getting worse," she said in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she was visiting the agency's global supply warehouse. "Access to affected areas has been badly affected as roads have become clogged with mud and people fleeing the mountains with their injured. Tens of thousands of children are at risk."

Under current circumstances, even if tents and blankets were to arrive at each remote village immediately children would still be at serious risk due to a lack of medical assistance, de-hydration because of bad water, and malnutrition.

"There is a significant threat of disease, with outbreaks of diarrhea already," Veneman said. "Given the intermittent shut-downs of the air corridor because of bad weather, the consequences for sick and injured children could be grave."

The first large-scale airlift ever conducted jointly by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began Wednesday.

NATO opened an air bridge from Incirlik, Turkey to deliver tents, blankets and stoves donated by the UNHCR. The first flight, a C-130 from the United Kingdom, arrived in Islamabad the same day, carrying nine tons of tents and blankets.

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The first NATO C-130 with tents and blankets from UNHCR from Incirlik, Turkey is unloaded in Islamabad on October 19. (Photo courtesy NATO)
Additional C-130 cargo aircraft from France, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom have been deployed to Incirli, with more due to arrive.

NATO began delivering emergency supplies to Pakistan from its base in Geilenkirchen, Germany on October 13. Tents, sleeping bags, and winter jackets, as well as a camp which will be used for food distribution by the UN World Food Programme have been delivered.

“NATO is providing this aid at the direct request of the Pakistani government," said NATO Spokesman James Appathurai. "And the urgency of a quick and substantial response is clear to anyone who has seen the terrible images coming from the affected areas.”

This action represents the initial response by the Alliance, Appathurai said. NATO has agreed to examine the potential requirement for more support to Pakistan, which could include use of sealift and possible deployment of helicopters, shelter items, medical equipment and medications.

The World Food Programme reports that thousands of people have started fleeing their inaccessible villages, seeking medical attention, food and water, as landslides and bad weather continue to impede the delivery of desperately needed relief supplies.

WFP food assistance is being transported by truck where roads are open and by helicopter and pack mules in more remote mountain areas.

In Geneva, Egeland told reporters today that the UN has probably never been as overstretched as it is right now. In the face of donor and agency fatigue, he said the UN still must deal with the old emergencies, Darfur, the Congo, the southern African region where 12 million people urgently need food aid, the Central American floods and landslides. But the world cannot allow itself any kind of fatigue, he said.

The world had never been richer and the rich world had never been bigger, Egeland said, adding, "The world must be able to respond to several emergencies in parallel and at the same time, as the humanitarian system is forced to work on several emergencies at the same time."