Heavy snows threaten Pakistani earthquake survivors

By Oxfam

A second humanitarian disaster that relief agencies have been warning about for months looks imminent after heavy snow began falling in the northern region of Pakistan still recovering from last October’s devastating earthquake.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of displaced families living in camps across Pakistani-administered Kashmir (AJK) and North West Frontier Province (NWFP) woke to find that many of their tents had collapsed under the weight of snow, said emergency relief organization Oxfam

“Thousands have already been suffering from freezing temperatures across the region for weeks, with children and the elderly especially prone to cold-related illnesses,” said Oxfam spokesperson Shaheen Chughtai in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.

He said great efforts had been made to supply the affected areas with water and sanitation facilities, blankets and shelter since the disaster. However, the relief effort has been hampered by several issues, including the sheer scale of the disaster, difficult terrain and the slow arrival of promised funds.

“We have been urging the international community for weeks to speed up the delivering of aid and fulfil its pledges of money. A second wave of deaths is now inevitable unless more help and protection is sent immediately.”

Snow started falling on New Years Day and continued through Monday. The Pakistani meteorological department said parts of the earthquake affected region received more than two feet of snow.

Many roads in the mountainous north were blocked by snow and landslides – a constant hazard with frequent tremors continuing to rattle the region. Helicopter flights – vital for supplying assistance to the most remote areas – have been grounded by the bad weather.

Around three million people were affected by the 8th October earthquake, which registered 7.6 on the Richter scale. It is estimated that at least 73,000 people were killed directly and a similar number left injured.

The United Nations’ World Food Programme said recently that more than two million people in the affected region were not receiving adequate supplies of food.

Aid workers have been hampered by the inaccessibility of many of the towns and villages in the region. Additionally, although the UN has attempted to scale up its response, international pledges to its earthquake emergency fund have been slow to arrive. Less than half of the promised money for its “flash appeal” had arrived more than two months after the earthquake.

Trying to stay warm amid freezing temperatures has been a serious problem. Most of the tents rushed to the region were unsuitable for harsh winter conditions and there has been a shortage of blankets. However, the crowded spontaneous camps are vulnerable to fires and several deaths have resulted after tents caught fire.

Working in a total of 114 camps, Oxfam has helped more than 285,000 beneficiaries. Specialising in providing water and sanitation facilities, the relief organisation has been winterising existing tents, sending blankets as well as supplying materials such as corrugated iron sheets, ropes, tarpaulin sheets and nails for locals to assemble sturdier structures known as bandis.

“People at the camps tell me they fear for their children,” said Chughtai. “Conditions were already tough even at the best organised camps. As the snow continues to fall, the risk of many more deaths is rising.”

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