Bracing for the big chill in quake-hit Pakistan
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan 4 (UNHCR) - Earthquake survivors and the aid community are bracing themselves for the harsh winter in Pakistan's quake zone as the weather took a turn for the worse this week, raining and snowing for days on end.
The bad weather, which started on Saturday night and unleashed torrents of rain and up to five inches of snow in northern Pakistan, grounded relief flights for three days and caused landslides and road blockages in much of the earthquake-affected areas. Isolated cases of flooding and tent damage were reported in several relief camps.
"Some tents collapsed under the weight of the snow when people didn't pitch them properly. We replaced the tents and NGOs are now helping them to nail down the stakes and tighten the ropes," said Morgan Morris, UNHCR's team leader in Muzaffarabad. "We're also advising people to prevent flooding and improve drainage by digging a trench around their tent to prevent water from seeping in, and making a drain to channel the water out."
She added that some spontaneous camps that had previously declined UNHCR's assistance in the just-concluded winterization campaign are now accepting its relief items for protection against the Himalayan cold. Sixty-eight families at Interloop camp received emergency distributions of blankets and plastic sheets today.
In Batagram, where it poured non-stop for three days, part of Batagram-Maidan camp was flooded. "These tents were erected in the rice fields, so naturally they retain water," explained the UNHCR team leader in Batagram, Bujar Restani. "We're working with the district's Works and Services Department to improve drainage and explore options like elevating the tents with concrete blocks."
Alternative shelters were also sought, including a college building and a nearby camp. "We found 100 tents for them at Pak-China camp and brought community leaders on a go-and-see visit. They went, they saw, and decided not to move," said Restani. "They're very adamant about staying, even in the rain and mud. We tried to create a host family system but no one wanted to move, not even by a hundred metres. We have no choice but to improve conditions where they are."
In Bagh, UNHCR staff visited over 10 camps and found no damage from the recent storms. "There were plastic sheets to waterproof all the tents because we had just completed our distribution for winterization," noted team leader Khosrow Hakmanesh. Nonetheless, preparations are still ongoing for relocation to planned camps with better facilities.
"Namanpura camp has capacity for 300 families and is 90-percent completed. Mangbajeri camp is half complete and can hold 350 families," said Hakmanesh. "We have identified a third site with the government and plan to start moving people around mid-January."
None of the UNHCR hubs has seen any mass influx of people from the mountains and upper valleys since the weekend. Bagh reported 40 new families, and Muzaffarabad 50 new families arriving "in dribs and drabs" over the last few days.
"Even if more snows come, the army isn't expecting large numbers to come down because they feel people 'up there' are coping well," said Hakmanesh in Bagh.
Muzaffarabad team leader Morris added, "The fact that people are not flocking here could be because aid agencies have done a great job providing for them where they are, or because the roads are blocked and they're unable to come."
In the event that harsh weather drives quake survivors to seek help in camps, UNHCR is standing ready to support the Pakistan government with 50,000 additional arrivals. New sites like Bakrial, Namanpura and Mangbajeri have been set up while existing camps like Meira and Havelian have been expanded.
For now, however, all eyes are on a new cold front expected in the coming days. To mitigate the effects of winter, UNHCR and the government will start distributing 40,000 stoves in the relief camps this weekend. The risk of tent fire has prompted the government to opt for communal heating in North-West Frontier Province, whereas in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the authorities have authorized individual distribution due to space constraints in many camps.
Recognising the potential fire hazard, UNHCR and its partners are launching an information campaign on fire safety and prevention, distributing leaflets on the do's and don'ts of fire usage in camps. The agency is also supplementing the Pakistan authorities' efforts to provide fire extinguishers and buckets filled with sand in case of fire.
As the lead agency for camp management, UNHCR is currently supporting the Pakistan government and non-governmental organisations in more than 300 earthquake relief camps in NWFP and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
By Vivian Tan in Islamabad, Pakistan