Brisk recovery in Pakistan's quake zone

The brisk sale of nails and iron sheeting is more of a silver lining than Anwal Faroze could have asked for. His small hardware shop, sitting in one of the most remote valleys in Pakistan's earthquake zone, sells more supplies now than ever before in 16 years of business.

"There is more need now. People are busy reconstructing," says Mr. Faroze, his bushy beard underscoring a bright smile.

His revival is symbolic of the nation's recovery more than a year and nearly two frigid winters after a devastating earthquake killed 73,000 people in one of the worst natural disasters in human history.

But as Faroze's shop attests, progress cannot be measured in the brick and mortar of reconstruction alone. There are other encouraging signs in this destitute valley: Local organizations and relief agencies are picking up where the military and international relief organizations – both now considerably diminished – have left off. Old social and economic mechanisms have sprung back to life, and new, transformative processes brought by the outside world – whether in attitudes toward women or livelihoods – have taken on a life of their own, nurtured by locals intent not only on recuperation, but progress.

The earthquake destroyed more than 200,000 homes – some 10,000 here in Allai Valley alone – in an area twice the size of Connecticut, leaving more than 3 million homeless in Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province. When the Himalayan winter came last year with brutal force, some 600,000 people huddled in hurriedly made tent camps. Now winter has come again, but this time, only 30,000 people are left in camps, according to the International Organization on Migration (IOM).

Not that the challenge is over. Few homes are completely reconstructed, meaning that nearly 2 million will face the second winter in temporary shelters, according to an assessment by OxFam International.

"This is what we wanted – that the communities take charge of their lives," says Lt. Gen. Ahmed Nadeem, Deputy Director of the government's Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA). "I already see signs that they're turning this adversity into an opportunity."

Determination is evident in the cramped office of Zahid Amin, chairman of the Development Authority of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Kashmir. The office lay in ruins after the earthquake, which killed some 30,000 people in the district. But in December, Mr. Amin led a team of international aid group officials and the military to assess shelters in the city, identifying nearly 3,000 families still living in tents. The results were troubling, but the fact that Amin's people could marshal such an assessment at all shows local government is bouncing back, observers say.

"This is a great test. Here you have the development authority going ahead with a survey ..." says John Sampson, head of IOM's office in Muzaffarabad.

Still, identifying homelessness is one matter – providing assistance is another. Most observers agree it will be months before local civil administrations can function on their own. In the meantime, a web of international and local organizations will work together with hobbled administrators and the military. But there will be holes.

Saeem Muhammad Kiani is one of those who slipped through. More than a year after the earthquake, he and his community of 35 families still live in tents in Chella Bandi, a Muzaffarabad enclave. The earthquake sent their ancestral homes tumbling down a hillside, leaving behind violently churned bits of cement and dirt.

"Due to the winter, most of our children are already sick," says Mr. Kiani, who must wait for the government to identify new land where his community can rebuild.

In the second winter, this is one of the small pictures of worry in the otherwise large picture of encouragement, says Andrew Macleod, the relief-to-recovery transition adviser to the United Nations resident coordinator and to the deputy director of ERRA.

Even in valleys as remote as Allai – where more than 2,000 died among a population of 148,000 – most survivors have received disaster aid from the government to rebuild. A cash infusion of roughly $1,600 so far per family has reached 475,000 of the 600,000 households affected, totaling almost $500 million. The government estimates that about $1 billion has already been spent on relief and rehabilitation.

This winter will be cold, but no crises are expected. Survivors are well-stocked with blankets, quilts, and winter clothes, observers say. Save the Children USA is handing out more than 4,500 winter kits for children in Allai, complementing 25,000 corrugated galvanized iron sheets the Army sent for shelters. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is airlifting shelter and relief supplies, including 40,000 quilts, to almost 100,000 people throughout the area.

"This was the biggest natural disaster response in the history of humanity. What we've seen in the last 12 months will be seen as one of the best models of early recovery," says Mr. Macleod.

As money and relief has flowed, so too has other progress not easily captured by the metric of dollars. For months inside a small tent in Allai, Farha Deeba, a soft-spoken woman in a hijab, has trained 22 village women in sewing, gardening, and other skill sets, under the auspices of Save the Children USA. Women have never worked in this area, except occasionally in the fields. Until recently, most were confined to their homes by strict religious mores. But once trained, many of the women have taken it upon themselves to spread the word and encourage others.

"They discuss it among themselves at social functions. When other women know, they demand [to be trained]. It is spreading day by day," says Ms. Deeba, a livelihood officer for Save the Children USA.

Now that the worst is over in Pakistan's earthquake zone, observers say, one of the major remaining challenges will be to generate sustainable livelihoods in an area that is among the poorest in Pakistan. To that end, the government has already trained 100,000 people in various disciplines such as masonry and plumbing.

In a shop above Allai's bazaar, Delawar Khan may have a leg up: He has started selling mobile phones, which only recently became available here. About 250 people come to his shop every day, Mr. Khan says. There's only one problem: So many people are making calls now that the network is always jammed.

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