Mission debriefing: UNHCR's emergency response to South Asia earthquake
The priority is to intervene in the higher altitude 'upper valleys' above 2,000 meters, whilst building a capacity to receive persons in camps at the lower levels. Despite the massive scale of destruction, many families in the upper valleys wish to remain near their homes to guard and rebuild the property, and do not wish to relocate to camp situations in the region or elsewhere as land records have been destroyed in the region, family wealth is buried in the rubble of their homes, and where crops have survived the maize needs to be harvested. Those families that saw no hope for survival have already left the upper valleys if they can (some may still be trapped as roads are impassable) to spend the winter with relatives working in other parts of Pakistan, or set up spontaneous settlements and camps in the lower valleys.
Under the leadership of the Government of Pakistan, UNHCR is part of the urgent collective effort to provide relief items to the upper valleys to enable families to survive the winter. Already 100,000 blankets, 2,000 tents, 5,000 jerry cans and 10,000 plastic sheets made available by UNHCR are being distributed to the remote upper valleys with the support of Government of Pakistan, NGO and UN helicopters, as well as with mules, and by foot.
We are now in week four of the emergency after the earthquake on 8 October 2005, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, caused such devastation in South Asia. Over 3.5 million persons have been affected in NWFP and Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir in Pakistan of which 1.8 million are homeless, and 1.2 million severely affected. As of 26 October 2005, over 57,000 fatalities and 77,000 casualties have been recorded. The official data is still only partial as many areas have yet to be reached, unofficial tolls predict much higher fatalities and casualties. Forty seven per cent of persons in NWFP have lost their homes (rising to 95 per cent in Batagram) and 68 per cent in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir (rising to 85 per cent in Muzaffarabad). Remaining houses have cracks and with over 800 tremors in the last three weeks, families are making their own tents from cloth and sticks next to their homes, or leaving their homes and setting up spontaneous settlements and camps alone or with the support of civil society groups in the lower valley. There are a multitude of spontaneous settlements and camps, and the terrain in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir makes it more difficult to identify suitable sites for planned camp than in NWFP. The situation, needs and response are defined by altitude and access. The most affected areas are the higher altitudes of Neelum Valley and Jhelum Valley.
Despite the best efforts of the Government to clear roads, daily landslides mean that much of the upper valley is cut off, and reachable only by helicopter, mules or by foot. It is estimated that 30% of roads will remain impassable throughout winter.
It is an immense logistical challenge to get relief to these remote Himalayan hamlets and villages. The scale of the problem is beyond the capacity of the United Nations or any other single entity; and an effective emergency response can only be managed as part of a collective coordinated approach. The Government of Pakistan are the only entity with broad outreach to the high altitude affected areas. The response of the people of Pakistan and civil society groups has also been tremendous. Leadership, coordination and information sharing by the Government of Pakistan in this complex emergency will be key.The magnitude of the disaster is such that the added value of a UN response, will be quality not quantity, in supporting a coordination mechanism to ensure that assistance is channelled to reach those most in need to save lives.
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