UNHCR rushes to shelter Afghan refugees battered by rains in Pakistan
MALGAGAI CAMP, Pakistan, March 7 (UNHCR) - Nature is a cruel host in Balochistan. After many years of suffering from drought, the Afghan refugees in Malgagai camp this winter saw their mud houses collapse under relentless snow and rain.
"Until 15 days ago it was snowing but after that it was rain," said 23-year-old Rahmat Ullah while more ominous clouds spread across the valley from the surrounding mountains. "The houses started collapsing a week ago."
The UN refugee agency, alerted to the problem four days after it started, has just completed a second distribution of tents to provide emergency accommodation to those left homeless, bringing the total number to 808 since Friday. Another 250 tents are on the way in another truck convoy.
Malgagai, with an estimated 7,300 residents, is sited on what is inhospitable terrain at the best of times. Located at the base of gloomy black mountains on a barren slope strewn with rocks and gravel torn from the slopes over the millennia, there was not a blade of grass to slow the torrents of water racing downhill.
The deep gorge that separates parts of the camp has been dry in recent winters. Now the refugees watch a stream heavy with mud tear into the banks. UNHCR vehicles drive through the water to reach the upper part of the camp, the worst-affected section of the scattered houses.
The sheets of plastic that residents placed under a final layer of mud covering the pole roofs made little difference. Three solid weeks of rain this winter had eventually saturated everything. The walls, made of rough earth plastered around stones, began to disintegrate. Even some of those still standing are now considered too dangerous to use.
Fortunately the houses did not collapse quickly, and most of the Afghans abandoned them in time as debris started to fall. One woman suffered a broken leg and was transferred to a hospital in Quetta, the provincial capital. UNHCR staff also checked out reports of fatalities in other refugee camps, but concluded they were unfounded.
As UNHCR staff surveyed the situation on Sunday, Mohammed Rahim was already busy rebuilding, piling up the stones for a new perimeter wall to his compound. The gravel-strewn earth he packed around them was a reminder that these people do not even have the finely ground soil that can help mud houses survive rain.
Inside his compound, two UNHCR tents erected a day before sheltered the families of Rahim and a relative. He estimated it would take a month to rebuild his two-room house if he does not take a break, but that would also mean forsaking any employment and earnings.
UNHCR provides elementary education, basic medical care, and water and sanitation services to refugees in camps, but they must provide for their own food. The refugee agency is also not normally involved in housing, but this was an exceptional winter, with the heaviest rains anyone could remember in decades.
A UNHCR team was dispatched from the Quetta sub-office as soon as the first reports arrived from refugees who had called from a nearby town. By the time the team reached Malgagai on the afternoon of March 3, UNHCR's implementing partner for health services in the area, TARAQEE, had already done a preliminary survey.
Although there was a break in the rain, the team could see that some houses had already collapsed and more were likely to follow if the rain resumed. By the next day a convoy of five trucks was already on the road with about 500 tents, and the second convoy was being prepared.
Distribution is not easy in such emergencies. Tents had to go to those in immediately need, and UNHCR staff had to filter out others trying to capitalise on the situation. Some residents of a nearby town even appeared when word of the UN assistance spread, but were easily detected because they could not produce proof of registration with the camp health clinic.
But the fears of the UNHCR assessment mission about continuing danger were well-founded. By the time the team left Malgagai on March 4, the rain was falling again. While the hot, dry summer is approaching, the first drops from a new wave of threatening clouds began falling late on March 6. The last of the 808 tents were being hurriedly erected and pinned in place, with the children already gathered inside.
The harsh weather in Balochistan has prevented UNHCR and the Pakistani government from completing the first-ever detailed census of Afghans in Pakistan. While the process was completed on Sunday in Punjab, Sind and the North-West Frontier provinces, it has been extended till March 10 in Balochistan.
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency on Monday started the year's repatriation season from Pakistan to Afghanistan, bringing home 122 refugees originating from Afghanistan's Nangarhar province. The pace of returns is expected to pick up as temperatures rise later this month. In all, UNHCR anticipates that 400,000 Afghan refugees will return home from Pakistan this year.
By Jack Redden