Broken Dreams

Six months ago Pakistan was hit by a devastating earthquake that claimed 73,000 lives. The world pledged US$6.4 billion in aid. So far, just US$2.8 billion has been sent. Massoud A. Derhally travels to the region, meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, WFP officials and the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan. He reports first hand on the on-going battle to rebuild half a million lives.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  May 7, 2006

|~|28-UNWFP-008536-200.jpg|~|NO HOPE: The earthquake resulted in the destruction of 600,000 homes, affecting 500,000 families. Many are still living in tents, waiting for food handouts. photos by paul macleod/un wfp|~|Six months ago Pakistan was hit by a devastating earthquake that claimed 73,000 lives. The world pledged US$6.4 billion in aid. So far, just US$2.8 billion has been sent. Massoud A. Derhally travels to the region, meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, WFP officials and the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan. He reports first hand on the on-going battle to rebuild half a million lives. It’s a hot and dry afternoon in the Mansehra district of Pakistan. Out of a winter tent, comes 22-year-old Mohsen Ali, who recounts how he lost his father six months ago on October 8, 2005 when a massive earthquake estimated at between 7.6 and 7.8 in magnitude hit the region. Ali now lives in a few tents along with his mother, sister and four brothers in what was once a sizeable refugee camp. His house was shattered in the village he lived in 60 kilometres away. He and other members of the family received 25,000 rupees (US$416) in compensation aid from the government. But that is hardly enough to make a difference in his life because of a controversial ownership-based initiative for the rebuilding of the houses, which the government is abiding by. Even though Ali and his family built their house, the land on which that house was constructed was someone else’s. And so the saga of Ali’s family is like that of many earthquake survivors. They can’t leave their camps because they either can’t afford to rent new homes or go back to their original village because it’s either too dangerous or desolate. The story of Ali’s family is a microcosm of a much wider and sobering narrative that has affected the lives of millions of Pakistanis. Listening to Pakistani government officials, aid workers, international relief agencies and representatives of donor nations speak certainly helps in explaining the magnitude of the devastation. The fault line of the quake stretches across 100 km and has damaged 4429 km of roads. The area affected by the earthquake was 30,000 sq kilometres, impacting a population of 3.2-3.5 million people. The quake killed more than 73,000 and injured 128,000 people. According to Major General Nadeem Ahmad, deputy chair of the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) independent agency reporting directly to the prime minister, 600,000 houses were destroyed, 500,000 families affected, 3.5 million displaced, and 7,500 educational institutions destroyed. “It was a catastrophe. The scale of devastation was unimaginable; cities and villages were reduced to rubble, the infrastructure destroyed and with the Himalayan winter approaching, it was a race against time,” says Ahmad. According to health care officials, the number of school children affected was 955,000, and for women that figure was equally high at 800,000. Exactly 707 amputations were carried out. There were 654 healthcare facilities before the earthquake, of which 240 or 37% were totally destroyed and 140 or 21% need retro fitting or partial restorement, according to Dr. Hasan Orooj, Pakistan’s deputy director general of health. “They were not earthquake proof and now all should be,” he explains. There are temporary structures that have been developed which include 100 basic health units that were erected with the help of the World Health Organization and the UN. But the total completion of all these health care facilities will take 1-3 years. The infrastructure damage was colossal; wiping out 35% of telecommunications network, 55%-70% of the electricity grid, 30%-40% of water supply, and led to the accumulation of 200 million tons of debris. Statistics can only explain so much. Nothing quite prepares you for the harsh and uncensored realism you are faced with when you visit the afflicted areas. “The earthquake was a great tragedy. I remember I was sitting and reading the newspaper and was shocked when the whole building shook…What was built in centuries was destroyed in seconds,” says Shaukat Aziz, prime minister of Pakistan. “The fall out of the earthquake has many dimensions. One of the best things we did is take a decision to mobilize our army immediately. By that night we had issued orders and started moving the next morning. Secondly we asked for help from the world. Third our immediate priority was to rehabilitate and rescue the injured...By the evening, we had 700 patients flown in by choppers and we suddenly realised that even with choppers if the roads are closed it is very difficult to provide relief. We worked in parallel to open the infrastructure up, which was opened in 24-48 hours depending where you where. The people of Pakistan galvanized and gelled. We never saw such resilience since the [country’s] independence,” adds Aziz. The international community also came together. Though initial responses at the first fundraising event in Geneva a week after the earthquake struck were not proportionate to the magnitude of the devastation Pakistan had sustained, the country received $6.4 billion pledges at a fundraising event held in Islamabad in November (US$4 billion in soft loans, US$2.4 in grants and cash). A lot of grants came in aircrafts, blankets, food, and material aid. There is a lesson out this crisis says the prime minister. “When people are dying after the disaster and need medical care and food, that’s not the time to raise money,” he says. “The Secretary General of the UN must have a fund where he or she can act immediately. When people are dying you shouldn’t be spending all your energies raising money. You should be using all your energies to save the people. The goal is US$500 million fund and that should be used whether it’s a tsunami or an earthquake.” Overall aid to Pakistan from the Muslim world is the largest bloc of assistance US$1.5 billion. Saudi Arabia was one of the largest donors, giving US$500 million in cash, and soft loans. Aside from the financial aid there was material aid through the flights and the construction of a field hospital in Mansehra. “At the height of the crisis we treated 1,820 patients every day and a total of 120,000 people have been treated, with 900 operations carried out,” explains Dr. Khalid Al-Hebshi, general supervisor of the Saudi Crescent Society that set up hospital in the in the district Mansehra. Al-Hebshi points out that 29,438 children, who make up a large portion of the victims, were treated as well. Up to 80 different countries dispatched their relief and aid agencies that worked in conjunction with the UN World Food Programme. Even countries that didn’t have a diplomatic presence in Pakistan, like Cuba, which is recognized as having one of the best health care infrastructures in the world, sent 2,500 doctors, paramedics and nurses. “The earthquake relief operation has been mentioned as one of the most successful operations because of the entire international community came in and clicked together,” says Major General Ahmad of ERRA. But the challenges, he points out, were numerous. “Because of the nature of the terrain, the roads were blocked. Some of the helicopters could not land and as a result the army that had mobilized had to use mules. When the roads did open they got blocked because everyone who wanted to get into the area moved in and everyone who wanted to move out also rushed so it got clogged,” explains Ahmad. The relief operations were made difficult because of the absence of disaster management organization, in addition to the fact that the vast affected areas and dispersed inhabitants. Initial damage assessments were inaccurate. There were inadequate resources. Air traffic congestion and logistical matters with respect to relief operations was cumbersome as there was insufficient lift capability from abroad. Civil administration was dysfunctional and there was a lack of interagency coordination. “We had to lead from the front. You have to deal with physical injuries, you have to deal with infrastructure repairs, and you have to create camps for temporary shelter,” says prime minister Aziz. With the relief efforts emerged a dependency syndrome among the refugees who looked to the state apparatus for food and shelter. After relief operations came to a close on March 31 the government wanted to accelerate the closing of relief camps to facilitate the return of survivors to their villages. “Living in tents is difficult and complicated and psychologically puts pressure on the people. But then you get free food, free medicine, free school and some of the people don’t want to move,” says prime minister Aziz. Omar Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s Minister of State for Finance says the rehabilitation is key now. “From October until March was the relief operations; getting the people out of the affected areas. Now the actual tough work is going to start, and that is rebuilding the lives of the people. Building the physical infrastructure is going to be difficult as well. It is something we built over a period of 60 years and taken out in seconds. But the most difficult thing is rebuilding the lives, picking up the straws from where people left them on the 8th of October. The livelihood factor in the rehabilitation plan has to kick in. People will have to be retrained,” explains Khan. But like issues relating to government compensation that irked a few thousand survivors and led them to demonstrate last month—the relocation issue has been a controversial one and has its critics. Many of the survivors have moved back to their villages. But though this may break an element of the dependency that government officials talk of, it nonetheless makes the relief work for organizations like the UN World Food Programme all the more difficult. The task of helping survivors is all the more tenuous given the decision by the Pakistani government to suspend the operations of helicopters donated for relief work by some countries. The helicopters were the lifeline of the relief operations at the height of the crisis, and aid agencies need them to deliver aid to remote villages where roads are inaccessible. “The helicopters can cover 60% of the terrain that WFP is targeting and most of the UN agencies. Several hundred thousand people that were in the camps returned to higher elevation areas and 60% of those we find are not accessible by road and unlikely to be in the monsoon season,” explains Michael Jones, the country director of the World Food Programme in Pakistan. The number of people that have left the camps ranges from 80-95% depending on the camp. Some camps have a residual population that is quite high and are being concentrated together to make it easier to assist them. But for those that have moved out of the camps and whose livelihood depends on agriculture and farming aid from agencies is essential and it’s detrimental to have the helicopters that can channel that aid. “The main concern we have is that in the absence of helicopters we wont be able to distribute the fertilizer and feed to all the people before the planting season. Our concern is that you may find people that people don’t have a good harvest or a harvest at all and are forced to go to the lower elevations where they become hosts of the provincial government or living off others. There is increasing pressure on us to provide some of those people with food assistance. We have a window of opportunity to get them back on their feet and the sooner the better. This is not a time where we want to lose the helicopters. They need food. At the end of the day most of the women interviewed said ‘if I had a choice between cash or food I prefer food because at least I know I have a meal for my family every evening,’” Jones points out. “Until the roads are open and until they are open on a sustained basis food would be a rather important input. Thirteen helicopters are considered absolute minimum because any further reduction upsets the economies of scale and its no longer a cost effective operation. So if you go below a certain level you get diminishing returns,” adds Jones, who has been with the UN since 1978. “In terms of logistical complexity this disaster is the worst I have seen,” explains Jones who has been stationed in other disaster zones that include Sudan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Late last week Arabian Business learned that the World Food Programme’s request to maintain a fleet of helicopters for its operations went unheeded and as a result the organization announced it would carry on with its work with mules. “We have given up on the helicopters. We announced today (May 1) that we are not going to be requesting any funding for them because it’s too much trouble. We have notified everybody over and over again that there is going to be a problem with the helicopters. Nobody seemed to be willing to support them so we’re going let everybody ride donkeys,” says Jones. “We’re going to take donkeys and four wheel drive vehicles and try to clear the roads as we go. Certainly the projects won’t be successful before it next snows. .” Though Jones concedes the situation is not dire to the point where people will die from starvation he does call attention to complacency by some in the media who have moved the “switch light elsewhere.” There is anxiety that the main concerns of survival are over and “it’s just a matter of providing tools, that there are no risks any longer that people need only to go back and handed a little bit of money,” he says. But whilst there is difficulty in restoring a sense of normality to people’s lives progress is being made. Reconstruction according of the infrastructure will take 3-4 years according to ERRA. “The money is coming. What we need now is implementation; we need capacity training. We need all the pledges to be honoured. About US$2.8 billion have already been negotiated,” says prime minister Aziz. He adds: "Reconstruction is a marathon it’s not a 100-meter sprint. The leap of course, is shorter. There is a silver lining to this; what we rebuild will be better that what the people had before.”||**||

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