Last weekend, the weather in Europe took a turn for the worse. A sudden outbreak of freezing weather swept much of the northern part of the continent, disrupting lives and livelihoods. Sadly three homeless French people and one more in Brussels died over the weekend.
In eastern Kashmir, we felt a change in the weather as well. As snow started to fall over the village of Rangla, 6,000 feet up in the Himalayan foothills, everyone understood this does not mean just a temporary cold spell. Rather, it means “the merciless Himalayan winter”, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described it in a November 19th press conference in Islamabad, after touring the earthquake zone.
After seeing the first-hand conditions on the ground, and knowing what is to come, Mr. Annan was visibly moved.
Sometimes you need to see and feel something for yourself before you can understand it, before you can understand the need to act on it.
So after Europe’s recent cold spell, perhaps we all can begin to understand the disaster that is about to befall northern Pakistan. Some comparison here is illustrative, but hopefully Europe’s recent brush with winter will prove exhortatory.
Some parts of Europe received eight inches of snow. Other places between two and three inches of snow fell. The earthquake zone in Pakistan will get anything from four to ten feet of snow. Temperatures will drop to minus double-figures.
More than 3 million people are homeless, many have received tents and are building temporary shelters. But for two to three months, an area almost the size of Ireland will become one big open air fridge-freezer, and home to three million-plus people, most of whom do not have a house to call a home.
Europe’s transport infrastructure ground to a halt in many places. The earthquake has destroyed the transport infrastructure in Kashmir.
In parts of Europe, people could not get to school, or work, or less-fortunately, could not reach doctors or hospitals. In Kashmir, almost all schools and hospitals were destroyed.
When the snow comes, it will mean aid agencies will not be able to get food and shelter to many places.
With such heavy snow, bringing tonnes of basic supplies up treacherous, towering mountains makes Europe’s transport and weather conundrum look insignificant.
For example, to supply enough tin sheeting and related materials such as nails and washers to 7,500 families to construct temporary shelters, an aid agency will have to move 270 tonnes of material by road, on trucks trying to negotiate precarious mountain roads.
The UN emergency appeal is still only 30% funded. Huge pledges of more than $5 billion were promised for reconstruction. But surely if such a huge figure can be pledged, then one-tenth of that can be put toward saving lives now. However it seems not.
What will two metres of snow and -15°C temperatures do to so many people in Pakistan who have only temporary shelters or winterised tents. And the ones in the temporary shelters are the lucky ones.
What will happen if thousands of desperate people flood downhill to escape the snow, with children and elderly in tow, only to settle in spontaneous camps, without water or sanitation? How will such an influx be managed? Especially if there are others on the hills who need to be fed and sheltered as others stream down seeking assistance? The relief operation is already underfunded and under-resourced. Without a massive influx of hard cash now, an impossible task will present itself in the next few weeks. And lives will be lost.
Reconstruction cannot happen until the spring. Lives need to be saved now.
Perhaps the cold snap in Ireland and Europe can have some positive effect. Just by sampling a taster of the conditions set to hit northern Pakistan, perhaps the Europeans will comprehend the predicament faced by three million vulnerable Pakistanis.Show