Asia earthquake relief effort racing against time

A massive relief operation is under way following the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan and parts of India on Oct. 8, but all involved say the operation faces unprecedented challenges.

Current reports place the death toll at over 73,000, including at least 17,000 school-age children. About 3.3 million people are homeless in a mountainous area covering 10,000 square miles around Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the epicenter of the quake.

Aid officials have repeatedly stated that the world has not grasped the severity of the calamity. “From a logistical point of view this is possibly the most challenging emergency operation that the international humanitarian community has ever faced,” said Rashid Khalikov, the chief aid coordinator for the United Nations in Pakistan.

UN agencies have been working alongside the Pakistani army and numerous independent nongovernmental organizations to bring relief to the hardest hit region of northern Pakistan and Kashmir, one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the world.

Mudslides from the earthquake and heavy rains have cut off access by road to many areas and relief efforts rely primarily on helicopter drops. Donkeys and mules are being used to carry much-needed supplies. Despite as many as 100 helicopter drops per day, up to 20 percent of the mountain villages, or, about a half million people, have not yet been reached by any form of aid whatsoever.

Nine mobile health units treating 2,000 people a day have been set up in Muzaffarabad and Mansehra, but more is urgently needed to meet the needs. Tent schools will be set up in the next week to restore some sense of order for the tens of thousands of children left cold, hungry and vulnerable to disease.

The World Food Program’s mandate is to drop enough food for six months for one million people before they are cut off by winter snows, but the agency has received only 13 percent of the $56 million in pledges it needs.

The urgent round-the-clock race against time is to provide protection against the harsh Himalayan winter, which will begin in the next three to four weeks. Once the mountain snows come, these remote villages will be virtually stranded. If aid does not come to the people in these areas soon the world will be faced with an even greater catastrophe: a disaster which could have been prevented by an adequate and immediate response.

Jan Egeland, the UN’s top relief official, compared the disaster to that of last year’s Indian Ocean tsunami. “We thought the tsunami was the worst we could get,” he said, “but this is worse.”

The governments of India and Pakistan are considering a proposal to open the border, closed since 1971, between their respective administrative areas in Kashmir, with the aim of setting up medical aid camps and easing the delivery of supplies. The Indian government also lifted restrictions on telephone lines to Kashmir, and Indians, frantic for news of relatives, waited in line to make telephone calls to the other side of Kashmir for the first time since 1989.

While numerous international aid organizations are on the ground, and many countries have offered personnel, helicopters, supplies and funds, the UN has received only 17 percent of the funds needed for its projected six-month emergency operation. Funds are trickling in too slowly to meet the demands. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent a special appeal to all 191 member-nations for funds for “an immediate and exceptional escalation” of the global relief effort.

OXFAM, a UK-based aid group, released a “name and shame” report on Oct. 28 assessing the contributions of the world’s richest countries to the relief effort. It said the United States has contributed only 9 percent of its “fair share,” based on the relative size of its economy. In contrast, Sweden, Norway, Ireland and Luxembourg topped the list, with each contributing more than 100 percent of its share.