PAKISTAN: Thousands still without basic shelter two months after quake


MACHIARA VALLEY, 9 Dec 2005 (IRIN) - Thousands of earthquake survivors are still without shelter more than two months on. The earthquake, which killed over 80,000 people, left an estimated 3.5 million survivors homeless. The exact figure of homeless survivors is not known, said Darren Boisvert, media and public information officer for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

'The problem is that we’re still finding people who don’t have sufficient shelter so we can’t accurately estimate how many people there are left,' Boisvert said. The Pakistani government estimates that 480,000 houses need to be rebuilt in Pakistani-administered Kashmir alone.

Aid has still not reached dozens of villages and Boisvert says that a lack of information is impeding the aid process.

'Some of the maps are misleading. Some aid organisations say they have covered areas but it’s only at certain elevations and the map doesn’t reflect this,' he said.

'So we only have 60 percent information of what is going on. We are struggling with information for shelter and we’re still finding people,' he added.

According to the latest UN situation report on shelter, aid agencies, local authorities and the Pakistan military - who say they are constructing 6,000 temporary shelters a day - will have provided non-tent shelter for at least 595,000 people by 10 December. These shelters will be mostly for survivors living above 1,500 m. However, many aid workers in the field say there are many survivors who still urgently need shelter. 'The majority of people here are without shelter. Even if they’re under some sort of cover it’s not enough,' said Abdul Jalil from Islamic Help UK who has been working in Bheri in the north of Muzaffarabad district.

Bheri was razed by the earthquake, killing 126 of its 1,500 inhabitants. IOM has been distributing blankets, sheets and tarpaulins in Bheri but many residents are still without shelter as temperatures drop.

'Our biggest problem is shelter. I have no tent and I sleep under the stars. It’s very cold,' said 20-year-old Zaheer Ahmad Usmani, who used to be a student in Muzaffarabad until the earthquake destroyed the university. Now he is trying to find shelter for his family in Bheri.

'People here need shelter. They’re not getting the shelter they need,' said Maggie Tookey from Edinburgh Direct, a UK-based charity working with UN Habitat.

'Some of them have managed to cobble together some sort of shelter using wood from their crushed houses but it’s just not adequate,' she said.

Edinburgh Direct has been using mules to carry aid up the steep mountain passes to isolated communities who are still without shelter. Due to a shortage of helicopters not enough material is reaching Bheri, Tookey said.

'Now with more and more agencies requiring air transportation, demand has increased and due to road blockages this puts pressure on tasking and scheduling,' said Tony Freeman, logistics officer for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), in Muzaffarabad.

With road closures due to collapsed bridges, landslides, rock falls and snows, aid agencies are increasingly relying on helicopter flights to distribute aid. Heavier and more widespread snowfall in coming weeks will exacerbate the situation when up to 3m of snow in some areas will close even more roads.

'Unless something is done about getting supplies in from Muzaffarabad, people are not going to get the shelter they need. It’s a race against time, it really is,' Tookey warned.

It is the same story in scores of remote villages that are isolated by blocked roads and hidden deep in mountains. 'IOM teams in the field are still identifying people who have yet to receive shelter above 5,000 feet [1,500m],' said Boisvert.

All that is left of the villages in the Machiara Valley is crumbled ruins that trickle down the side of the mountains. Most of the huge mud roofs of the village houses collapsed under the force of the quake and the villagers are slowly trying to clear the wreckage with their bare hands.

Some villagers have started to rebuild their homes using salvaged wreckage, but others cannot begin until they have cleared the ruins. Until they do, they are sleeping in the open air in the freezing cold wearing only thin cotton clothes.

'How are we going to save our women and children from the cold?' asked Hafizullah Qureshi, who says it will take at least four months to rebuild his traditional mud house and repair his farming land. His family, including several tiny children, huddle in the barn that was used for their cattle. It is a small, dank space in which eight family members must sleep.

At 2,000 m above sea level, the weather in the Machiara Valley is bitterly cold and some snow has already settled by the graveyard, which is hidden in a small forest on the top of a buttress that overlooks the valley.

'Just look around and you’ll see that people all over haven’t been reached,' said Jean-Philippe Bourgeois, a field logistics coordinator with the IOM.

IOM was the first aid agency to reach Machiara Valley distributing shelter. They have distributed blankets, tarpaulin sheets and tools to some 300 households, but there are still 900 households to go.

'It’s a slow process. We had a helicopter down for a few days and we only have small helicopters,' said Claude-Andre Nadon, logistics coordinator with the IOM.

Nadon says it will take a week to distribute shelter material to the remaining households. Until then, families like Hafizullah’s will have to risk hypothermia and sleep in the cold.