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Earthquake survivors getting much-needed food aid (Simon Roughneen)

BAGH — It’s a familiar scene. Enthusiastic shoppers hurtle from shop to store in a frenzied spate of last-ditch spending. A variety of stalls offering a wide range of items, while pine forests and snow-capped mountains provide a suitably seasonal backdrop to offset the wizening winter chill.

The streets are heaving, and laden shoppers load up vehicles with their wares.  To anyone reading this at home, you might think I’m talking about any shopping centre or street in Ireland any day during the past week or two. I’m not.

In 3 towns in Pakistani Kashmir, 100,000 of the 3 million plus left homeless by the October 8 earthquake are racing to spend their vouchers allocated by GOAL as part of its multifaceted survival programme.

As winter hits, GOAL is giving the equivalent of US$100 to beneficiaries who have or will receive tents, plastic sheeting, blankets, bulk food items and corrugated galvanised sheeting (CGI). With the CGI these families can build simple, cheap, easy-to-construct shelters based on a sample model. GOAL has placed twenty of these samples with vulnerable families – such as those headed by widows or the disabled – around our area of operation in Bagh District, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

Tanveer Ariz runs the Awami Hardware store in Arja, 4800 feet up in the Himalayan foothills. Taking in the equivalent of €3300in the first day of the voucher scheme, he said “People are buying waterproof storage boxes, gas heaters, electric heaters. Elsewhere they are buying more food, as the roads up to their higher villages will be blocked in a few weeks.”

With the vouchers, the same families have money and the discretion to purchase supplementary survival materials from 163 shops and stalls. The local economy – almost as devastated as the people it serves – receives a much-needed injection of hard cash. And people are empowered, recapturing some of the control over their own lives lost, like so much else, in the earthquake.

Now ‘giving’ – and on a massive scale – is what is needed for the victims of the October 8 earthquake. On average, a European family spends €700 annually on Christmas gifts. The same amount of money would provide material for 6 families in northern Pakistan to build a shelter giving them a fighting chance of survival over the winter. Or allow them draw up their own Christmas shopping list, as people are doing in Bagh district.

And as with harnessing the spirit of Christmas cheer, the media can play a more positive role. Last Christmas, sustained coverage of the earthquake-tsunami resulted in an unprecedented level of public interest, and donor-private financial commitment to disaster emergency relief in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Tamil Nadu in India, and elsewhere. The needs were great – and the media, public, governments – all concerned stood up and be counted. To the tune of $9 billion, according to the most reliable estimates.

To the majority Muslim population of AJK, Christmas – either in its Christian or secular guise – is an alien concept. But the interpersonal aspect of Christmas – giving – remains recognisable. And giving is what is needed. With the UN Flash Appeal still only funded at 40% of its sought-after US$550million, the World Food Programme believes it an only keep its helicopters in the air until mid-January, when winter will be at its worst and many roads to higher altitude areas cut off by snow.

In Ireland, the Small Firms Association has predicted that consumer spending over the Christmas period will reach €4 billion, with up to €22m an hour being spent on Christmas Eve, representing an increase of 10% on last year.

If the whole world spent €22 million an hour on earthquake-stricken Pakistan, ten hours outlay would generate more than enough to meet emergency survival needs. Most or all of the boxes on the shopping list could ticked off very quickly.

With acute respiratory infection (ARI) on the rise, and a potential mass influx of people into camps likely to allow the spread of various communicable diseases, lack of funding has resulted in a situation where health agencies are anticipating pull-out from the quake zone just as health needs are likely to magnify.

And this in a context where the majority of the 3 million homeless do not have winterised shelter. Where millions of blankets and CGI sheeting are needed to provide the minimum counter to the 6 feet snowfalls and minus 15 temperatures that are the norm for this beautifully-austere and rugged land.

The Irish people and the Irish government have given generously to the quake relief effort.

But around the world host of natural and man-made disaster related emergencies elude a mild palliative, never mind solution. On average, appeals for dealing with emergencies from Niger in 2005 to Darfur in 2004 to the DRC since 1998 generate maximum 2/3’s of what is needed.

The tsunami response was the exception rather than the rule. And sadly, in a different way, the same applies to the south Asian earthquake. A study by the UN Financial Tracking Service released November 30 shows that while the tsunami response remains at the top of the league of disaster response, the south Asian earthquake languishes at the bottom, despite affecting at least twice as many people and providing a more onerous humanitarian-logistical challenge.

And worryingly, UN Emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Vandemoortele said last week that the rate of donations to the quake relief effort showed a sharp drop in December after a good November.

But perhaps donors, like shoppers, are hoarding up for a pre-Christmas outlay.

So as people rush to the shops before Christmas, allow me one last statistic. If every EU citizen gave 50 cent, or lobbied their government to do the same, the emergency relief effort, even at this late stage, the shortfalls in the quake relief effort could be offset.

Given the situation on the ground in northern Pakistan, a shopping spree based on a true Christmas spirit is needed now.

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