Harsh Pakistan winter slows quake aid

Snow, ice, and landslides challenge Army and NGOs.

It was his lunch hour, but Major Sherjeel had forsaken food and prayers to inspect the road to Pashto, a remote mountain hamlet among the worst hit by October's earthquake. What he found did not please him.

The road was little more than a muddied ledge thousands of feet above the Allai Valley that had caved in after a recent tremor, opening a chasm that no vehicle could pass. Shelter supplies - including life-saving sheets of corrugated iron - were now cut off from Pashto. And the sky was threatening snow again.

The road would take five days to repair, the major says. Many would have to shiver in tents in the meantime, or make do with other forms of inadequate shelter. "This is the third time we've had to do this, the third time in the same spot," says Sherjeel, a member of the Pakistan military's 104th Engineer Battalion. "There's no permanent solution."

The collapsing road to Pashto is a metaphor for winter relief operations in northern Pakistan. It demonstrates that, despite the dedication of people like Sherjeel, efforts to aid survivors at high altitudes remain precarious and fragile.

Relief workers and the Pakistan Army recently marked 100 days of operations since October's earthquake killed 86,000 and left more than 3 million homeless. Their progress has helped avert large-scale deaths due to the cold or outbreaks of communicable diseases.

Relief agencies warn the days ahead are likely to be tougher. Innumerable tents at higher altitudes have collapsed under the first snows, highlighting the need for more substantial shelter, while inclement weather has halted the distribution of relief goods by air and road.

Some camps, meanwhile, are nearly overflowing and relief agencies, including the United Nations and the World Food Program, complain of not having enough cash and hands to sufficiently oversee the relief.

"One hundred days into the process, all is not well. The survivors remain under threat," Jan Vandemoortele, humanitarian coordinator for the UN, said at a press conference in Islamabad. "The test is still on."

The crux of that test remains the 400,000 people living at higher altitudes, nearly 100,000 in the Allai Valley alone. The conditions in this valley, now a focal point of relief efforts, are typical of both the progress and problems of the post-quake scenario.

Abdul Wahab's temporary home is a refuge from the wintry slopes of Bana, the snow-covered capital of Allai Valley. His walls are three feet of stone, topped by three feet of wood planks, based on specifications provided by the Army and relief agencies. Corrugated galvanized iron (CGI) sheets serve as the roof, ensuring the structure is light, Sherjeel explains. "God forbid, if there's a tremor, people won't get as hurt."

A consortium of relief agencies, working with the military, has helped build more than 6,700 shelters like this in Allai Valley. The CGI sheets are provided free of cost, and the timber and stone are salvaged from old homes, keeping costs low.

Still, Mr. Wahab is one of the fortunate few. Logistical challenges, such as the road to Pashto, have meant that only 30 percent of required shelters have been built here, according to Army estimates. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) recently tried to send 3,200 CGI sheets, enough for about 320 shelters, to Bana, but landslides, snow, and ice prevented the delivery. "With snow and rain here, we're going to have an extremely hard time delivering goods," says Darren Boisvert, IOM's public information officer, adding that recent weather conditions have also grounded helicopter flights.

There are also concerns that many survivors are rebuilding their homes with heavy flat roofs and stone masonry, elements that made them deadly in the first place.

"They're building the old way. It's a problem," says Anna Pont, project manager for UN-Habitat, adding that A-frame structures and wood masonry are much safer. The next challenge for relief agencies, Ms. Pont and others say, is providing training to ensure that what survivors build doesn't simply collapse again.

For now, shelter is only part of the problem. The number of cases of pneumonia and acute respiratory infections are rising, according to doctors at a hospital in Bana run by Save the Children, a relief organization.

Access to medical treatment is also limited, with Save the Children's hospital and a Cuban medical camp the only full-time medical facilities in the Allai Valley. Army officers spoke of one man who carried his gravely ill infant daughter for miles to Pashto only to find no clinic. The girl apparently died on the return trip.

Conditions like this continue to push many survivors further down the valley, straining already overcrowded camps.

The Maira Relief Camp in Battagram, just south of Allai, is the largest in the quake zone. Steam hangs over its 2,300 tents, where stoves burn throughout the day, keeping more than 16,000 inhabitants warm. While the laughter of children resounds like a promising refrain, about 300 new survivors arrive here daily from Allai, threatening shortages.

The road to recovery this winter is thin and easily broken, like the road to Pashto. Weary men trudge its passes each day, carrying food and supplies on their backs. They are determined and there is hope, but also a sense of uncertainty.

"What I can say is that we are living paycheck to paycheck," says Mr. Vandemoortele of the UN, adding that the agency had received only $321 million in donations, about half of its appeal. "Cash and coordination are crucial."

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