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Under a blue sky and a bright sun, the steep hillsides around Basant Kot look tranquil from a distance. But for the 290 households in this group of hamlets clinging to the slopes near the Jhelum River in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, life has been hard since a massive earthquake rocked the region nearly two years ago.
The temblor destroyed every house in Basant Kot. Not one has yet to be completely rebuilt and habitable.
Two winters have come and gone since the October 2005 earthquake left more than 3 million people homeless in northern Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. And while reconstruction is well underway in places such as Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, rural areas lag far behind with many people still living in tents or the most basic of shelters. And now, they face a third frigid season high in the mountains exposed to the elements.
"One man asked me what will become of us going into another winter if the snow is heavy," said Kenny Rae, Oxfam America's humanitarian response specialist, who recently returned from a field visit to the region. "Reconstruction is happening, but much more slowly than originally expected."
Part of the reason, he said, was the government's delay in coming out with workable guidelines for earthquake-resistant housing construction as well as delays in compensation payments to families that would allow them to rebuild. The initial guidelines called for homes to be rebuilt using reinforced concrete and masonry blocks—materials that were neither familiar to many people in the mountainous regions nor easy to obtain. And because the villages are so remote, shipping the materials in added substantially to their cost.
"More recently, the government modified its guidelines to allow timber frame houses to be built, which affords homeowners some flexibility," said Rae. "But many people had already started building using cinderblocks."
Each stage of construction—the foundation, the lower walls, the upper walls, the roof—requires inspection and approval. Coupled with that, the government compensation for each phase can take up to three months to arrive and covers less than half the cost of the work. Poverty has prevented many people from being able to rebuild at a faster pace.
"People continue to live in temporary shelters made from recycled wood and materials from their damaged houses, corrugated iron sheeting, and plastic tarps," said Rae. "Because of this, Oxfam has identified clear needs going into the winter and will support people that need help with fuel, blankets, and materials to weatherproof their shelters
Local organization changes lives
The bright news in all of this is the partner Oxfam is working with in the region: the National Rural Support Program, or NRSP. Rae returned from his field visit deeply impressed by what this local organization has been able to accomplish for people living in this rugged terrain.
"This is a very difficult place to work," said Rae. "The staff is subject to frequent landslides as they travel around, particularly after it rains. And although this is the first time NRSP has worked in this district, they've made remarkable improvements in people's lives."
Oxfam has given the organization $1.3 million to fund its work over the course of two years. Projects that have improved access to the rural villages and that have helped people to earn a living are at the center of NRSP's efforts.
For instance, around Basant Kot, NRSP has hired villagers to widen paths linking the hamlets and making them suitable for vehicles, or "Jeepable." The income has helped tide villagers over through the hard times and infrastructure improvements have brought them additional benefits.
"A track previously only passable by foot or donkey can now handle a four-wheel vehicle," said Rae. "In addition to easing access of construction materials, people can now get out and get medical care more quickly in case of an emergency."
NRSP has also been helping families restock some of the animals they lost when they were crushed beneath the stone sheds in which they were housed. So far, NSRP has distributed more than 3,000 goats to villagers in the rural areas.
"NSRP has set up women's community organizations that identify the poorest women, who are usually widows," said Rae. "Each gets five goats—four females and a male. Typically, the small herd produces four liters of milk a day, which families can consume or sell."
"The people who live here are resilient and self-reliant," said Rae. "Life will eventually get back to normal for these mountain dwellers. The role for Oxfam and its partners such as NRSP is to provide a level of support to ensure that the challenges they face in rebuilding are not insurmountable."