Earthquake Survivors at Risk as Himalyan Winter Starts Early

By Oxfam

One year after the Oct. 8, 2005, Pakistan earthquake, more than 1.8 million people face a second winter in makeshift shelters and tents, warns aid agency Oxfam International in a report published today.

Much has been achieved in the aftermath of the earthquake and a second humanitarian crisis amid sub-zero temperatures was averted last winter, according to the agency. However, the scale of the catastrophe, difficult mountainous terrain, poor infrastructure, extreme weather conditions, problems with disseminating public information, as well as gaps in support for some vulnerable groups, have hindered the pace of reconstruction. As a result, many are still at risk with snow already falling in one of the highest regions in the world

“With snow already falling, this winter seems to have arrived early. Besides materials that will strengthen their homes against the harsh conditions, people in temporary shelter in rural and mountain areas need sustained access to safe heating and other essential items,” says Farhana Faruqi Stocker from Oxfam International.

According to the Pakistan authorities, only 17 percent of the 450,000 affected households have begun building permanent homes. Oxfam estimates at least 80 percent of the remaining families, equivalent to 1.8 million people, are still living in temporary shelters with the rest staying with friends and relatives. More than 40,000 people are known to be in tents in official camps. Thousands of others are believed to be in unofficial camps and tents close to their home villages.

A recent Oxfam survey of 17 earthquake-hit villages found that virtually all those who were living in tents lacked adequate protection against winter weather. Oxfam believes up to 60,000 people could be forced to move from their mountain villages because of harsh winter conditions and would need accommodation in camps. Thousands of others in remote rural areas also remain at risk because routes to access vital supplies of food, fuel and medicine are often blocked by winter snow and landslides.

Pakistani authorities have belatedly taken some positive steps. Local officials plan to upgrade camp facilities to deal with a likely influx. The government has also very recently decided to allow international aid agencies to distribute materials such as corrugated iron sheets to help rural dwellers winterize their shelters.

The Pakistani government’s reconstruction strategy makes homeowners responsible for rebuilding their homes. The government is helping families by providing financial support plus technical guidelines and training on earthquake resistant construction. More than 30,000 builders have been trained and money has been distributed to more than 370,000 families to help them begin rebuilding. Aid agencies were recently allowed to build homes for the most vulnerable groups such as widows and the disabled.

However, owing to difficulties in disseminating the building guidelines, problems linked to cost, availability and transport of materials, as well as a host of administrative problems, reconstruction has been slow and problematic.

“When we see that one year after Hurricane Katrina, the world’s richest nation – the US – is still struggling with the reconstruction of the areas affected, it is no surprise that Pakistan has faced difficulties in the recovery across a much more difficult terrain,” says Stocker.

Worryingly, almost a third of those who have begun rebuilding have not complied with official guidelines – sometimes unwittingly. Besides leaving themselves vulnerable to future earthquakes, such people may also become ineligible for financial support. The challenge of delivering information on earthquake-resistant construction has now been passed to the UN.

“People need to be clearly informed about financial and technical support they’re entitled to and the guidance on building earthquake resistant homes must be easily available and understandable.

“Better information is also needed to monitor and analyse what is happening to women. They face particular challenges to access their entitlements. For example, many women are dealing with institutions such as banks and government offices for the first time,” says Stocker.

Oxfam is also concerned that there is still no government support for rural survivors who lost their land during the earthquake to rebuild their lives.

In the six months after the earthquake, Oxfam provided water and sanitation facilities for approximately 580,000 men, women, and children. It distributed winterised tents and transitional shelter kits to 370,000 people and helped nearly 60,000 people rebuild their livelihoods.

Oxfam is now repairing and building water and sanitation systems for around 220,000 people, including in 130 hard-to-reach mountainous areas and village schools. Oxfam is also providing water and sanitation assistance to around 10,000 people still living in camps. Oxfam is helping over 90,000 people to rebuild their livelihoods through cash for work, providing agricultural support, and helping village traders re-establish their businesses.

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