Snowfalls and Shortfalls – Herald AM


As the line of tractors and trailors snaked up the coiling roads toward Chilandrat, 5600 feet up in the Himalayan foothills, the second in the convoy railed against the incline and rubble. A payload of corrugated galvanised iron (CGI) sheeting dragged the ancient Massey Ferguson open-top back downhill, straining against the engine horsepower.

Tractors stuggle to ascend winding hill roads to deliver winter shelter to the homeless (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

At a hairpin bend just 250 metres from the given distribution point for 2900 CGI sheets, enough for almost 300 families to construct temporary warm-room shelters, the overstretched engine finally gave out. The tractor went as far is it could before giving a chugging cough eerily akin to the onset of acute respiratory infection (ARI), a looming health challenge as winter hits the 3 million homeless in northern Pakistan.

However this almost-irrelevant hitch merely means people walking a little bit further with their allotted CGI sheeting, the shortfalls elsewhere will have much more serious ramifications.

As local man Sayid Hamid said, ‘these materials will help is stay on our land and near our homes. We can use the sheeting to build a warm shelter. Many of us already have timber frames built, after visiting the people living in the sample shelters GOAL has placed in our villages.’

A week ago the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced that due to insufficient funds, health agencies operating in he quake zone would soon have to pull out. Just as the health problems among survivors – ARI among them – get set to climb, the response – like the tractor on the hill – seems unable to climb any more.

However, all the other tractors in the convoy – 7 in total – successfully managed to get to the top of the hill, where almost five hundred locals awaited their vital cargo.

So, maybe not everything falls short, and not every shortfall has catastrophic implications.

In 2005, the response to the Indian Ocean earthquake-tsunami was rapid, even fulsome in comparison with funding for other disaster and humanitarian emergency relief efforts. Overall, with government and private donations combined, over US$11 billion has been allocated. Within one month of the disaster, 95% of the UN emergency appeal of US$1.3 billion was received.

The south Asian earthquake, by contrast, has received just 40% of its stated needs of US$550 million, ten weeks after the disaster. And this despite the potential for a second disaster wrought by the harsh Himalayan winter on over three million homeless.

World Food Programme Director James Morris described the quake relief as the most logistically-challenging operation he had known. It’s a fair comment. GOAL is distributing food and shelter materials (tents, blankets, plastic sheeting, tarpaulins and CGI) to 10,000 families. This runs in tandem with a voucher system allocating the same families the equivalent of US$100 to purchase supplementary but essential survival materials, and kickstarting the local economy. Getting needs assessed, people and materials moved, and in good time, is no easy matter in a place where 400,000 people live at altitudes twice as high as any mountain in Ireland.

But shortfalls remain, and for every localised success story, there are glaring omissions, potentially fatal shortfalls. Once the heavy snows start – any day now – the shortfalls will become more telling, as the snowfalls become more extensive and heavy. Many roads will become impassable, and those who do not receive the right shelter before then will be stranded. While it is though that most of those above 5000 feet have been catered for, it is also though that 80% of tents distributed are not winter-standard.

Even accepting the need to focus on the 2 million people homeless below 5000 feet, shortfalls remain. At least 2.4 million more blankets, 170,000 more plastic sheets, and 200,000 more tarpaulins are needed. 75% of people staying at lower altitudes have not got winterised shelter.

And even if these all arrive, no-one knows for sure just how severe winter will be and just exactly what its implications will be. While there is often food insecurity and exposure and health related casualties here during and due to the winter, no-one knows how these hardy mountain people will cope with winter minus their homes. And in such vast numbers.

And no-one knows how an underfunded and overstretched global relief effort will handle a situation such as thousands of people, left vulnerable because shortfalls in shelter provision, leave their homeplace, stream downhill to add to the already 200,000-strong population in unplanned camps.

While there is no exact-science methodology for offsetting such a crisis, present and impending, and no crystal ball to predict exactly what will happen – at least the financial and resource-base deficits could be offset. As things stand, just over 40% of the emergency relief money sought by the UN system has been provided.

We spent roughly €700 per family on Christmas gifts in Ireland this year – and it was Christmas goodwill which part-motivated the vast outlay on natural disaster relief and post-disaster crisis prevention in Sri Lanka, Banda Aceh and elsewhere last year. More of the same is needed this time around as well.

If the world falls short this time in northern Pakistan, the ramifications will be far more serious than a tractor stalling on the side of a hill. Instead, the world will see people collapsing – dying – on the sides of northern Pakistan’s mountains. And time too is short – nearly up – to compensate for the deficits. And it will not be just the cold winter snowfalls that are responsible, it will be the world that reneged on its commitment to humanitarianism when so many were in need. Our shortfalls will be to blame.

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