TOPICS: Homelessness lingers after Pakistan quake

The snow has started falling in the high mountains of Pakistan, two weeks earlier than normal. Another winter, with sub-zero temperatures, will soon engulf the valleys and peaks of the Himalayas and thrust itself upon the thousands of people still homeless following

the devastating earthquake a year ago. With the onset of winter, officials say the need for shelter is of utmost importance for those still living in tents in the earthquake-affected areas.

“Housing reconstruction is our biggest challenge,” said Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s state minister for economic affairs and statistics, who spoke at a UN news conference commemorating the one-year anniversary of the earthquake last week. “While this is one of the most important sectors, it still remains one of the most under-funded.” Khar said that as the government transitions from relief to reconstruction, an estimated $2 billion is needed to rebuild the almost 600,000 homes that were destroyed by the earthquake. But the government faces an $800 million shortage to meet this task, and so far only 300,000 people have returned to permanent housing, according to Khar. The health, water and sanitation sectors also remain under-funded, she said.

“We are trying to get existing donor pledges translated into something that can be used immediately,” said former US President George HW Bush. “But we still have a long way to go.” Bush is the UN’s special envoy for the South Asia earthquake, which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale and hit the Northwest Frontier Province and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (in Pakistan Administered Kashmir) on October 8, 2005. The earthquake left 73,000 people dead and 3.5 million people homeless, and affected over 30,000 sq kms in Pakistan.

The number of people in official tent camps, located in two of the worst affected cities, Muzzafrabad and Balakot, is approximately 30,000, according to government figures. Humanitarian groups such as Oxfam International, however, put the total number of homeless people at 1.8 million. Humanitarian groups such as Oxfam and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) and Red Crescent Societies have urged that the camps, which the government had planned to close, be kept open this winter. Oxfam recommends building “temporary winterised shelter for people living in rural and mountain areas who are unable to rebuild,” and “upgrading winterised shelter for people in camps, especially in Northwest Frontier Province.”

Rebecca Scheurer, regional manager for Asia, Middle East and Europe at the American Red Cross, said that her organisation has set aside $2.5 million to support the IFRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent Society’s needs this upcoming winter. “The humanitarian community has been busy with contingency plans, such as increasing stockpiles of pre-positioned relief, in anticipation of continued needs over the winter,” she told IPS. “We can’t think of Pakistan in a reconstruction phase yet.” — IPS