Winter claims lives of quake survivors

The onset of winter claimed the lives of at least two earthquake survivors on Monday—the first confirmed victims of what officials fear will be a new disaster for the 3,5-million Pakistanis who lost their homes last month.

With heavy rain and snow lashing Pakistan’s part of disputed Kashmir, more than 100 people were brought to hospitals with hypothermia and respiratory diseases.

The bad weather also blocked roads and grounded helicopters as troops raced against the approaching Himalayan winter to ferry aid to remote areas devastated by the October 8 earthquake that killed more than 87 000 people.

The troops relied on vehicles where possible, and mules in other places.

Three-month-old Waqar Mukhtar died of pneumonia hours after he was brought in from nearby Neelum Valley, said Abdul Hamid, a doctor at a hospital in the regional capital, Muzaffarabad. In the town of Bagh, a middle-aged man died a day after he was brought in with hypothermia, said Lieutenant Colonel Johan de Graaf, senior medical officer at the Nato field hospital there.

“If we don’t get people into shelters, they will die. It’s as simple as that,” said Air Commodore Andrew Walton, commander of the Nato disaster-response team in Pakistan.
“That’s the second disaster that’s waiting to happen if we in the international community don’t do something about it.”

Walton said it is critical to get more shelter materials and mobile medical teams quickly to high-altitude areas where the weather is worst. Mountaintops in the area have a fresh covering of snow.

Shelter

Pakistan’s army said as many as 14 battalions of military engineers are working with volunteers and aid workers in 10-man teams to build shelter homes of about 19 square metres, with priority given to families who have no male member in the home and are living above 1 500m. It said 18 269 shelters have been completed, with another 4 750 under construction.

Hospitals throughout the quake zone each reported dozens of people, mostly children and the elderly, seeking treatment. The situation may be worse in remote areas, where landslides triggered by the precipitation have blocked main roads.

Parveen Ejaz (26) stood in line outside the Nato hospital with her two sons and two-year-old daughter, all suffering from coughs and colds that she blamed on the weather.

“I’m really worried about the winter because I lost my house and we are living in tents,” she said as she held her daughter, Nayyab, her face flushed.

Rain and snow

The season’s first snow fell on mountains near Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani Kashmir, and elsewhere late on Saturday.

Downpours and snowfalls continued on Monday. Hundreds, including women, children and the elderly, were already suffering from respiratory illnesses, diarrhoea, scabies, tetanus and other ailments, even before the first cold snap.

Major Farooq Nasir, spokesperson for the army, said troops halted traffic on the main Neelum Valley road “to avoid loss of life” after overnight rain and snow.

Engineers were working to clear the road, which links Muzaffarabad with scores of villages and towns and leads to the Line of Control—the heavily militarised frontier that divides Kashmir between nuclear rivals Pakistan and India.

Nasir said no Pakistan army helicopters would fly in the quake zone on Monday because of clouds and rain. Troops used land vehicles and mules to haul supplies to the needy.

The heavy rains created a near-quagmire in the town of Arja at the camp for a Nato engineering battalion working to clear roads, repair schools and hospitals, and get aid to quake survivors at high altitudes.

“It will slow us down, but we will not stop working,” battalion spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Pedro Vallespin said as troops built a boardwalk over the deep mud surrounding his work tent.

“Just think, if you’re working up there, what it’s like with the mud and the landslides,” he said, gesturing at the surrounding hills.

A magnitude-4,7 quake was felt on Monday in Pakistan’s south-western city of Quetta, but there was no word of damage or casualties, said meteorologist Mohammed Jamil. He said the quake was centred about 300km north-east of Quetta, but gave no further details.—Sapa-AP

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