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Up to 3 Million Earthquake Survivors Still Need Shelter

By Somini Sengupta 
and David Rohde


U.N. and private aid workers said Thursday that the pressing need to shelter up to 3 million Pakistani earthquake survivors before the harsh Himalayan winter sets in was threatening to become the most difficult relief operation the world has ever faced.

Compounding the problems posed by the sheer number of people displaced — three times as many as those affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami last December — are the mountainous terrain and the onset of a winter that is likely to arrive in less than three weeks and sever the stricken mountain hamlets of the north from the rest of the country until spring.

And yet, whether out of fatigue after a year of seemingly endless natural disasters or simply because the quake struck in Pakistan, aid officials say, the international response has been weak. Even in the face of the epic destruction, foreign donors have so far pledged less than $90 million, or barely a quarter of the $312 million that the United Nations estimates it will need for immediate relief.

“It’s the most difficult humanitarian crisis ever,” said Andrew Macleod, chief operations office in the U.N. Emergency Coordination Center in Islamabad, “because the scale is huge, the logistics are so difficult and there’s such a brutal winter coming on.” In recent days, as his office assessed the damage across the far-flung hamlets dotting the Himalayas, the most credible estimates turned out to be “the worst-case scenarios,” Macleod said.

“We have never seen anything like this,” he added. The quake struck an isolated, mountainous area of about 11,000 square miles, roughly the size of Maryland.

The death toll has risen to 49,700, Pakistan’s disaster response chief, Maj. Gen. Farooq Javed, said Thursday. The injured were tallied at 74,000. The earthquake struck portions of North-West Frontier Province and the Pakistani-controlled section of Kashmir.

About 1,300 people were killed and 30,000 families left homeless in the neighboring Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. India this week opened up phone lines for families on its side to communicate with friends and relatives on the Pakistani side.

At a news conference on Tuesday night, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, suggested that the Line of Control that divides the Pakistani and Indian parts of Kashmir be opened as well.

India, which has sent three consignments of quake relief to Pakistan, has welcomed the proposal in principle but has said it awaits details of how it would work. The spokeswoman for the Pakistani Foreign Office, Tasnim Aslam, said Thursday evening that discussions about logistics were under way within her government.

Comprehending the scope of the crisis and deciding how to respond are extremely difficult. It is next to impossible to count the number of hamlets and homes scattered in the hills, and no accurate population count exists.

Of the few roads that cross the hills and valleys, many have been cut off, and the continuing aftershocks prompt landslides that block them all over again. The people who live in the hills are unable or unwilling to abandon their land and go down to the lowlands, where aid is available.