Afghan quake sparks fears in Pakistan – ISN

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A 6.7 magnitude earthquake has struck northern Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountain range, causing no reported casualties, but sparking fears in neighboring Pakistan of a repeat of the massive October earthquake there.

Taking place at 21.47 GMT on Monday, this latest jolt was a brief reminder for the traumatized people of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) of the 8 October earthquake that killed some 80,000 people and left more than three million homeless.

The force of the tremor shook aid workers and locals from their tents in AJK’s second city of Bagh during the night, and was felt in Islamabad, Srinigar, and the Indian capital, New Delhi.

Kubilay Hilyilmaz is a specialist earthquake engineer with Irish humanitarian aid organization GOAL. Speaking to ISN Security Watch, he said: “Firstly, last night’s earthquake was much less powerful than the 7.6 quake of 8 October, which was around 25-28 times greater in energy release terms. Also, the greater depth of the quake last night – 250km below the earth’s crust as opposed to 20km deep – greatly lessened the impact.”

With what UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan deemed “the merciless Himalayan winter” already appearing on the highest mountains, and a 6 December Pakistani Met Office release suggesting that this years’ winter will be worse than usual, the latest tremor to hit the Pakistani quake zone does not distract from the difficulties ahead.

Based on a survey of 3,400 households, UN Relief Coordinator Jan Vandemoortele on Tuesday suggested that the focus of the relief effort could now move to lower ground, below the 1,524m critical line. Above this line, snowfall will reach a minimum of 2m and night-time temperatures will reach minus double figures.

However, just over a week ago, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – the lead coordinator of the shelter effort – said 80-90 per cent of the tents handed out so far were not likely to withstand the winter.

On Tuesday, Vandemoortele said that over one million people needed extra blankets, and around 170,000 plastic sheets were required to bolster shelter materials already handed out.

So far, over 400,000 tents have been distributed by the international community and the Pakistani military. Non-winterized tents are being upgraded with plastic sheeting and tarpaulins, and some corrugated iron sheeting is being distributed to enable families to construct temporary shelters in line with the Pakistani government’s policy of “one warm room” per family.

It is estimated that between 350,000 and 380,000 people will remain above the 1,524m critical line over the winter. The aim of the shelter and nutrition distribution effort is to enable people remain on their land. Already 250,000 people are in camps. Only 36,000 of these are in planned camps.

Mohammed Iqbal lives 2,200m up in the Himalayan foothills, in the village of Chanat in Bagh district. He told ISN Security Watch: “If we have enough tents, enough blankets, enough shelter, we can manage.”

If people on higher ground do not receive adequate shelter they may stream downhill to form large unplanned settlements. With the international relief effort already overstretched in terms of shelter and food provision – the UN flash appeal has only received 38 per cent of its sought-after US$550 million – the prospect of dealing with large camps poses immense logistical, health, water-sanitation, and socio-cultural challenges.

The World Food Program (WFP), for example, is still short US$115 million of the US$182 million it needs. Much of this money is to be used flying helicopters. With the winter estimated to reduce helicopter flying time by 20 days, and rendering roads impassable, the pressure is on to get food and shelter brought to higher ground before the heavy snow starts.

Once it begins to snow, helicopters will become vital, but current funding allows the WFP to keep helicopters in the air only until mid-January. Winter in AJK lasts until March.

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