Desperate scramble for shelter in Pakistan

Torrential downpours delayed quake relief efforts on Sunday in the Himalayan region of Kashmir, and the Pakistani military said one of its helicopters flying an aid mission crashed, killing all six people aboard.

The MI-17 transport helicopter was returning home late on Saturday after dropping off relief workers in the town of Bagh and all those killed were military personnel, said army spokesperson Major General Shaukat Sultan.

The cause of the crash is suspected to be either bad weather or a technical malfunction, he said.

Bagh is one of the areas worst hit by October 8’s massive 7,6-magnitude quake, and relief workers have not been able to provide enough temporary shelters for town residents, let alone for the refugees who have streamed in from the mountains seeking aid.

Only 18 000 tents have been distributed so far in the entire region, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said on Saturday. The country’s relief commissioner, Major General Farooq Ahmad Khan, said earlier that 100 000 are needed.

Compounding the problem, many people whose houses survived have refused to go back inside, afraid that aftershocks will bring down the weakened structures.

“My house is full of cracks, and I won’t go inside,” said Mumtaz Rathore, huddled under a plastic sheet with his wife and four children. “Look at me, I have to live out here with my children.”

As the rain drove down, soldiers scrambled to cover supplies that had been dropped off by helicopters in previous days.
None were flying on Sunday.

“The medicines are the most important thing for us,” said Major Ali Agha, directing the effort to save the supplies.

Steep rise in death toll

President General Pervez Musharraf said on Saturday that the death toll from the earthquake had risen sharply to 38 000, with 62 000 others injured, and warned that the numbers could jump still higher as relief teams reach more villages in the endless folds of the Himalayan mountains.

“There are rescue operations going on, but after eight days it’s going to be a miracle” to save anyone else, Musharraf said.

A 13-member team of doctors from the United States planned to fly to the affected area from Lahore on Sunday, but it was unclear whether the mission would be delayed by the weather, state news agency APP reported. The team, including Pakistani doctors practising in the US, was bringing tents, medicine and hospital equipment.

Temperatures were down to seven degrees Celsius in hard-hit Balakot, where high winds drove the rain, making the town a rain-soaked nightmare for victims, and snow fell in nearby mountains.

Mohammed Qassim (25) took shelter from the rain under the corrugated roof of a collapsed building.

He was searching desperately for a tent to keep his five children, as well as the families of his two brothers, reasonably warm.

“For the sake of God, please give me one tent so that three families can live,” he recalled telling aid groups, most of which appear to have run completely out of tents. “They said no.”

He’s hoping to at least get plastic sheets.

“We distributed 1 000 tents yesterday, but we have run out,” said Farhi Butt, who partly owns a telecommunication company that has rushed aid to Balakot.

He has resorted to cutting up plastic signs and distributing them in sheets.

“They’re waterproof,” he said. “It’s not what they’re made for, but it will help the people survive for right now.”

Shelter a priority

Prime Minister Aziz made it clear that shelter is now the priority.

“We need tents, tents, tents and prefab housing,” he told reporters.

Aziz also said officials are planning an international donors’ conference to be held within the next week in Geneva.

He estimated that rebuilding Pakistan will cost “close to $5-billion”.

While United Nations officials have estimated the reconstruction would take 10 years, “we think it would be faster”, Aziz said.

Pakistan’s interior ministry on Saturday ordered that visas be granted free of charge to all relief workers and doctors coming to help for the next three months. Already 2 873 emergency personnel from 61 countries have flooded in, the ministry said.

The UN’s World Food Programme said it has flown in 35 tonnes of high-energy bars, donated by Norway, to be distributed in the affected areas. The rations contain enough nutrients for one week for more than 75 000 people, and more flights are planned for next week, the agency said.

More delays could be catastrophic. The UN Children’s Fund has warned that thousands of children could die from cold, malnutrition and disease.

Overnight rains also prevented troops from getting relief to the three villages still cut off in the Indian-controlled portion of the divided Kashmir region, where about 1 350 people have died, officials said.

Indian army soldiers on foot were trying to reach Taad, Shararat and Vayu—all at least 3km up in the Himalayas - said VV Vyas, a top provincial official overseeing relief work.—Sapa-AP

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