Pakistan turns to its people, not aid groups, in disaster relief

The government is paying earthquake victims directly to help them rebuild. But some say more money is needed.

The new home of Mohammed Ramzan lies lonely above a cornfield, jerry-rigged from old wooden beams and donated metal sheets. For the time being it is not much, only two rooms with dirt floors. But for Mr. Ramzan and his family of eight, survivors of October's earthquake, it's a new beginning.

Ramzan hopes to keep expanding and even has all the food and materials he needs to build his children a proper home. But here in the mountains of Kashmir, labor is scarce and expensive, and the $1,600 he recently received from the government "is not enough to actually build back," he says. So he'll concentrate on making the most of the two rooms he has, hoping they last the winter.

Nine months after October's earthquake, Ramzan's house is a testament not only to the heartening progress of reconstruction in northern Pakistan, but also to its often mixed results.

Rebuilding has taken off at an admirable pace, thanks to a government strategy that has avoided the mistakes made in the post-tsunami region. There, governments relied on relief agencies and local officials, and the results have proved slow and inefficient. Here, the government has opted to pay survivors themselves and has already compensated more than 290,000 households.

Still, many worry that the money, though a critical start, might not be enough.

Much of Bagh, a valley of nearly 500,000 people, remains a world in transition – its progress and problems typical of other recuperating valleys in the earthquake zone. Where once the landscape was filled with seas of tents, today it is punctuated by shimmering new metal roofs on schools, health clinics, and houses.

Yet schoolchildren are still learning in tents, and most of the local government still operates out of makeshift wooden shacks, just feet from where the remains of large buildings lie broken in the sun.

The monsoons arrive

Perseverance is pushing the process along, but the monsoon and its heavy rains have arrived. Last week, landslides shut down many roads, washed away homes, and left 14 dead in Kashmir and areas of the North West Frontier Province. The International Organization for Migration warns that at least 25,000 temporary shelters are still needed for earthquake survivors, particularly now that the weather is so inclement.

Shelter is the main concern of Bagh's residents, the majority of who have returned from relief camps to rebuild. More than 83,000 homes in this valley were destroyed, and although the government has compensated about 95 percent of the owners – as much as $3,000 in some cases – many say it is not enough to adequately rebuild.

Azwar Ahmed, an engineering student, says his family is still living in a tent in the mountains. "The government has given some money, but it is not enough," he says, adding that his family will have to save more and wait for better weather before rebuilding. "This is a lot of shock for us."

Some observers concur, saying that transporting materials to high altitudes can take a big chunk of a family's compensation check. Others point out that compensation is awarded according to individual homes, not families, a problem since two or three families may be living in a single place but will not be compensated accordingly.

More fortunate families, like Ramzan's, have rebuilt using what they have, scrapping together a sense of home again. But there are questions about whether such makeshift structures could withstand another earthquake. Local government officials insist that all levels of reconstruction are being monitored.

"Our teams are surveying in the villages and are monitoring if people are reconstructing their houses according to ERRA's [Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority] policy or not," says Syed Mumtaz Kazmi, Coordinator for the Deputy Commissioner's office in Bagh.

Mr. Kazmi says families that do not follow specifications are stopped from rebuilding and cannot receive the final installment of compensation unless their foundations have passed inspection.

Preparing for winter

Ramzan says the army came and approved his structure. But he's worried more about the winter than another earthquake. "We will not be able to survive the winter like this," he says with a smile between sips of tea.

ERRA officials recognize the need for more money, but say they can pay only for a two-room house with kitchen and bathroom – not for a full reconstruction. "We are in no position to give that kind of money for houses," says Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, Deputy Chairman of the ERRA.

Although concerns like this are common, there is a palpable sense of dedication, even optimism, driving the reconstruction here. Virtually all the government buildings in Bagh were destroyed in the earthquake, but Mr. Mumtaz of the Deputy Commissioner's office insists that 230 will be rebuilt in the first year of reconstruction. Just down the street, such hearty assessments were echoed by the District Education Office, which, despite operating from cramped sheds, plans to rebuild 100 schools in one year.

The immense challenge was underscored by the recent experience of Colin Rasmussen, a reconstruction advisor for the US Agency for International Development, which has a $200 million reconstruction program underway.

Mr. Rasmussen set out from Bagh city to locate some of the schools in need of rebuilding, but soon found that many were inaccessible because roads had been washed away in recent rains. Those he did visit were perched high in the mountains and accessible only by four-wheel drives.

When the roads became impassable, he hiked through fog and sun. One school was tucked high away in a pine forest shrouded in mist along a dirt road that even a sturdy four-wheel drive could barely negotiate. Emerging from the fog, Rasmussen mused that the school would be difficult to rebuild, cut off as it is from good roads and nearby towns.

But among all the calculations he made for reconstructing it, Rasmussen, like his counterparts in Bagh, never considered that it could not be done.

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