Sunday, December 26, 2010

Six months after Pakistan floods, seven million remain without shelter

 Six months after Pakistan floods, seven million remain without shelter

The biggest disaster in Pakistan’s history inflicted its deadliest wrath in these northern reaches, as summer monsoons ripped down the valleys, devouring land, people and entire villages. The brown torrent killed almost 2,000 people, but that number hardly begins to encompass the months of misery that followed, those who died of malnutrition or disease as they fled the rising water.

Now, as winter blows into the mountains, an estimated seven million people remain without proper shelter. Villagers scrabble in the earth, trying to build homes that will keep them warm among the snow drifts.
It’s a Herculean task, made harder by a lack of funding: donors gave only half of the initial amount requested by the United Nations and another major appeal seems likely in the coming weeks.

If the situation remains like this, many people will die in the cold,” says Khan Bahadur, 55. He stands beside his ruined house, watching young men from his village heaving boulders to remake the terraced lands that were washed away. Mr. Bahadur was among the lucky ones who received a temporary shelter, one of 49,000 such one-room structures distributed so far, but its corrugated tin walls won’t do much to fend off the chill as snows become waist-deep. The bad weather is also expected to block the road that links these northern villages to the rest of the country. Jeeps fill the narrow tracks along the valley, bumper to bumper, hauling bags of flour and other supplies in a desperate race against winter.

Nobody has a firm grip on the scale of the disaster, even six months after the floods hit. The latest bulletin from the United Nations’ co-ordinating body, published Dec. 23, describes a “dynamic situation” in a flood zone the size of England, with some people still waiting for waters to recede and others going home to an uncertain future.

Aid experts are scrambling to find replacement crops, but it seems likely that millions of people will continue relying on handouts until the fall harvest. Instead of declining, the number of food-aid recipients is projected to grow by 500,000 this month.

“We had assumed the emergency phase would be over in December, but there’s no way,” said Mengesha Kebede, the Pakistan head of UN’s High Commission for Refugees in Islamabad. “It just doesn’t seem to end.”

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