A year ago images from the tsunami disaster in Asia shocked the world into a relief effort that raised millions of pounds. By contrast the earthquake disaster in Pakistan has attracted only promises of money. In this impassioned article, Simon Roughneen argues that without our help, this Christmas, people in the region face even greater horror.
As the Himalayan winter hits the three million left homeless after the October 8 south Asian earthquake, a vastly underfunded relief effort threatens to end 2005 with another humanitarian disaster.
UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Jan Egeland recently described 2005 as ‘the year of disaster’, as first the Indian Ocean tsunami, the food crisis in Niger, Hurricane Stan, Hurricane Katrina all left destruction and death in their wake.
Egeland and his boss UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently launched the 2006 UN Consolidated Appeals for 2006, seeking $$US4.7 billion to alleviate suffering in 26 countries marked by disaster or conflict.
“It’s not like we’re asking too much,” Egeland told reporters after the launch of the appeal in New York. “For the equivalent of two cups of coffee per person for the one billion affluent people in the world, we would cover all the needs of 31 million people in a desperate situation for a year.”
A week ago the UN and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) held another press conference, focusing on one of the these disasters, affecting over three million people. The outlook was not good.
On October 8, a huge earthquake hit the north of Pakistan, killing over 80,000 people and leaving three million homeless.
Now, with the race against time nearly up, and almost certainly lost barring a major influx of resources over the next few days, this year of disaster may come to a fitting end.
Over the past week, the weather in northern Pakistan took a significant turn for the worse. People expect significant snowfalls, and snow is starting to fall at altitudes of 6,000 feet.
Both the UN and the IOM questioned the viability of shelter materials, stating that up to 80% of the tents used by beneficiaries may not be winterised.
However the contrast between the world’s reaction to the first of the 2005 disasters – the tsunami and what we hope is the last, the south Asia earthquake – could not be greater.
Money poured in to the tsunami relief effort. Money is only pledged to the quake.
And what is the difference between giving money and promising money?
To Akhter, Khadum and Sawar Ahmad, three blind brothers who share a tent together near where their house stood, the difference is life or death. Their mother died in the quake and they are dependant on their single sibling who has his sight for their survival, the difference may well be life or death this winter.
To Farhat Baba, a widow 200 feet higher up the same 6,000-feet high ridge, the difference is life or death. Life and death for her and her extended family of 11 who say they will have two metres of snow smothering their winterised tent in two or three weeks.
Promises, promises. People are becoming fearful – for themselves and their families. Attitudes toward aid agencies are starting to deteriorate. But the relief effort cannot generate its own money. It is only as good as the resources given to it.
Only about 35% of the UN request for US$$550 billion dollars has come in. Hundreds of thousands of people still need winter shelter, enough food to last, medical facilities, water and sanitation.
Many will die if a massive effort is not made over the next few days.
Recently there has been a cold spell across Europe with heavy snowfalls causing road closures, traffic delays, and sadly the deaths of homeless people in France and Belgium.
What will two metres of snow and minus 15 degree temperatures do to so many people in Pakistan who have only temporary shelters or winterised tents – if they are lucky?
What will happen if thousands of desperate people flood downhill to escape the snow, children and elderly in tow, only to settle in spontaneous camps, without water, sanitation?
How will such an influx be managed? Especially if there are more people on the hills to be fed and sheltered as others stream down?
The relief operation is already underfunded and under-resourced. Without a massive influx of hard cash, an impossible task will present itself in the next few weeks. And lives will be lost.
So perhaps then we will have the images of death and destruction to end our year as we had last year. Headline news of death and suffering in a far-off place as we open our Christmas presents and enjoy our Christmas drinks.
What better way to end the year of disaster than by allowing another disaster to take place?
But it is still in our hands – and our pockets – to do otherwise. Let us end the year of disaster by saying we worked to avert a second wave of death in south Asia, not by allowing a man-made humanitarian disaster cap off a year started by a natural disaster.
Now that would be headline news.
GOAL is an international humanitarian organisation and is providing essential food and shelter to 10,000 families living at high altitude. For more information see www.goal.ie or call +353 (1) 2809779.
PO Box 19,