ACT Dateline Pakistan04/06: Approaching winter is 'ticking time bomb' for Pakistan quake survivors

Originally published
By Paul Jeffrey, ACT International

Mansehra, Pakistan, October 4, 2006 - As winter approaches the north of Pakistan once again, many of those left homeless by last October's crippling earthquake are growing increasingly frustrated and newly afraid. Some even consider leaving their mountain villages once again to seek safety in the country's burgeoning cities.

"I want to start my life here again, but there is no work. Soon the snow will begin and our tents are too thin to withstand the winter. How are we supposed to live here? The army doesn't want to let us return to the city, but how can we stay here in the mountains?" asks Shams Shah Zaman, a quake survivor in the remote village of Khanian.

A government program to reconstruct housing has not been without its challenges. Most private relief groups, says Zaman, don't venture far from the region's few roads.

Among the organizations that do work in isolated communities is Church World Service's Pakistan and Afghanistan country program, whose director agrees that time is running out.

"There's only a small window of time before winter hits, and there will be at least 200,000 people without proper shelter. We can't count on this winter being mild like last year. We're faced with a ticking time bomb," says Marvin Pervez, the director of Church World Service (CWS) in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

CWS is a member of Action by Churches Together (ACT), the global alliance of churches and church agencies working in emergencies.

Heavy rains in recent weeks have underscored the urgency of Pervez' warnings. At least 400 people have been killed and thousands of families displaced by flooding and mudslides, and the staff of the CWS earthquake reconstruction and rehabilitation program has provided plastic sheeting, blankets, tents and food packages to affected families.

In several places the rains have washed away steep hillsides which last year's quake had left riddled with cracks, the soil loosened. Many families, casting a wary eye on the precarious mountains, have not returned to their former homes, preferring to wait and see what slides away with the heavy rain.

The new rains illustrate the vulnerability faced by those seeking to remain in their remote villages. Resources that once helped the hardy mountain communities cope with adversity have long been exhausted. Food, animals, and fodder were taken away by the quake, and many returning families, busy constructing makeshift shelters this year, have had little time to plant new crops. Neighboring families or villages that once helped out in times of adversity are similarly affected.

Controversial housing program

Much of the mounting frustration stems from a decision by the government to impose a policy ban on housing construction by non-governmental organizations and instead provide cash directly to survivors to rebuild their own homes. In March, the government's Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) announced an instalment plan to pay affected homeowners between $1,250 and $3,000 each, said to be two-thirds the cost of a simple family home. The program's $2 billion cost is covered by international donors.

Yet the instalment plan has left many confused, and has created new difficulties. Since many villagers lost their identity documents in the quake, when they received their first cheque in June, they weren't able to cash it in a bank. Those with the right connections provided cheque-cashing services for a hefty fee, in places as high as 40 percent of the 25,000 rupee ($400) first instalment. And many families used their first cheques to buy not bricks or cement, but rather to purchase clothing and other supplies they'd lost to the quake.

Pervez says the housing program is good in theory, but problematic in practice.

"In many places people are being left to fend for themselves," he says.

Although the ERRA decision took CWS and other NGOs out of the business of helping survivors rebuild their homes, the ecumenical agency-which has been working in Pakistan since 1954-has wasted no time in providing other critical services in the quake-ravaged north. With support from an ACT appeal for more than $18 million, a diverse staff that includes experts from more than a dozen countries is spread throughout affected communities working to ensure that life will indeed go on.

One critical component of the CWS program is rebuilding the economic infrastructure of rural village life. This means, for example, providing sheep to families that lost their animals when stables collapsed. CWS has sponsored a similar program in Afghanistan, and Mansoor Raza, coordinator of the CWS Disaster Response Program, says it has worked well.

"When we provide three sheep to a woman, it's like opening a bank account," he says. "As women sell the wool, milk, and meat, they gain purchasing power, and as the animals reproduce, it's like building up more money in the bank."

CWS also established skills training centers in several towns to teach carpentry, plumbing, welding, masonry, and electrical skills to men whose lives were disrupted by the quake.

Mohamad Siraj took the course in welding, and today has his own bustling shop in Dhodial, a village north of Mansehra. A farmer before, Siraj lost his house to the quake, leaving him and his wife and three children in a miserable camp for the displaced. Siraj says he spent months doing nothing, just sitting around in front of their tent. When the government's first housing reconstruction cheques were issued, he spent his on new sheets for the family. And then came an invitation to the CWS training program. At his graduation, CWS gave him a complete set of welding equipment.

"There's no end to the work to be done, and I work every day making shutters and doors and gates and grills. I'm making about 300 rupees a day and taking care of my family, and looking at where we can build a house," he says.

CWS is also providing more than 100,000 native trees for communities to reforest hillsides left bare by indiscriminate logging, a need underscored by this year's fatal mudslides.

In coordination with Norwegian Church Aid, another member of the ACT alliance, CWS has worked in several communities to reestablish potable water systems. In places, that means digging new wells and installing hand pumps. In other villages it has meant helping residents lay several kilometers of piping to bring in safe drinking water.

In the village of Battal, where one such water system benefits 8,000 people, Iftikhar Ahmad lost one son and his house to the quake, and he and his wife Noor and six surviving children are crammed into a tent on borrowed land. Since they don't own land of their own, he's still uncertain whether they'll get money to rebuild from the government, and the owner of his tent site is starting to ask for rent. Working odd jobs and crafting eye makeup in his spare time, he claims the presence of a water faucet a few steps from the tent has vastly improved the quality of their nonetheless difficult life. "Since we don't have to walk long distances to fetch water for washing and cooking, we can stay healthy and clean," he says.

Raza says navigating local water politics can be a tricky, but the effort can pay off in communal harmony.

"Our primary purpose is to reestablish channels of water distribution that were destroyed in the quake, but water is intimately linked to local power structures, feudal culture, geography, and land ownership. So while we don't go looking for conflicts, addressing these issues can provide a meeting point for communities to talk about and resolve some outstanding tensions," he says.

"Scars on the souls of people"

The damage done by the quake goes far beyond the cracked hillsides and shattered houses. CWS has invested significant resources in responding to wounds that are harder to see.

"Injuries aren't only physical. There are scars on the souls of people who lost their sisters and brothers. Time is a healer, but they need someone to talk to, to listen to them. Otherwise they can't restart their daily lives," says Raza. "We can't bring back their loved ones, but we can help them share their feelings. Ours is not a very articulate culture, particularly for men-who are considered more manly when they are less expressive and keep things inside them. We're not offering a western-style psychological model, but rather providing space where people can share and the community can heal together."

CWS runs several medical clinics for survivors, and Dr. Muhmmad Imtiaz Afridi works in the one in Paras, where CWS took over a government-built clinic that had never seen a physician. He says that while many patients come with normal respiratory and other ailments, others come suffering symptoms of depression.

"Especially the women come feeling sick because they've lost their children, some of whom they've buried but many of whom still lay under the rubble. Others have not felt safe in the tent camps. Others are living with relatives, but especially for women and girls who lost their husbands or fathers, they fear their relatives won't support them long, and in our culture they have few other options. We're working on livelihood projects with them, like handicrafts, but for this to have any long term impact we need to figure out a way for them to market their products," he says.

According to Saima Abbasi, team leader of the CWS Psychosocial Team, the agency has sponsored crafts fairs for displaced women and arts projects for children, but at the heart of the team's mission is getting villagers to talk about their experience, which at times is difficult because of the growth of dependency during the emergency.

"During the relief phase, NGOs provided everything. These days we often enter a village where people are so dependent that they think we have to give them something. But we don't. What we offer is intangible, it's love and opportunities for them to share their thoughts and feelings. And they need that just as bad as things. When the government took over the shelter program but didn't issue the cheques on time, the pressure on families grew, and frustration increased. It's critically important for the health of the communities that people find a safe way to express that," she said.

Villagers say the team's work sets CWS apart. "Many people come to look at us, but no one stays to listen to us except these people from CWS. They come and ask how we feel. We talk about our families and our lives. Sometimes we get depressed, but then they come and we talk and we feel liberated," says Maruf, a woman in Mangli, a village near Balakot where residents are still living in tents because of fear that what's left of their hillside plots will slide away with the rains or future tremors.

As the first anniversary of the quake approaches, Abbasi says CWS is shifting gears, encouraging survivors to become involved in community organization. The best therapy now, she argues, is for survivors, particularly women, to become involved in the details of installing new water systems and planning other aspects of community life.

Preparing for the next crisis

In many villages shaken by the quake, CWS had carried out an ambitious program of training schoolteachers in disaster preparedness. It paid off.

"Many children were saved because of the quick response of these teachers, and the stretchers and first aid materials we provided were well used," Raza says. "But the challenge we face now is how to make disaster preparedness a priority for the state, which has to assume its responsibility. We've had no comprehensive hazard mapping in the country, despite all the disasters we have, and there is no country-wide disaster preparedness program."

Yet Raza warns against preparedness that relies too much on technology.

"The only option for the world is disaster preparedness, not disaster response," he says. "After the tsunami, lots of people talked about installing an early warning system in the Pacific. But are the social structures in these countries geared up and prepared? What will they do with an early warning? Are evacuation routes in place? Are communities informed and organized? Preparedness should be grounded in a people-centered approach rather than in a capital-intensive, technological sort of thing which is useless to the people."

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary journalist and senior editor of Response magazine.