Harsh winter weather is threatening to cut off more than 300,000 survivors of last year's killer South Asian earthquake from critical food supplies, the United Nations warned Monday, as the season's first snows began to fall.
Rain and snow have begun blanketing quake-wracked northern Pakistan in recent days, foreshadowing what relief officials say will be an early and harsh Himalayan winter.
Ahead of the foul weather, the U.N. World Food Program has positioned nearly 10,000 tons of emergency food at base camps in Kashmir and surrounding areas to feed those who can't get to food or run out, WFP spokesman Amjad Jamal said in Islamabad.
More than 80,000 people were killed and another 3.5 million left homeless when the massive 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck northern Pakistan and India on Oct. 8, 2005.
Many quake survivors couldn't prepare for winter as they normally would because they spent the summer rebuilding their homes or because they were financially ruined, Jamal said.
Others live in valleys or mountaintops throughout the disaster zone where heavy snow or rain-induced landslides could further isolate them.
About 250,000 people are at risk of being cut off from food in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and between 50,000 and 70,000 are vulnerable in Pakistan's side of Kashmir, a divided territory that is also claimed by India, Jamal said.
The WFP has also procured five helicopters to airlift the sick or deliver emergency goods.
Another 36,000 are still in refugee camps at lower altitudes receiving WFP aid. But rain and cold are already making life miserable for survivors.
On Monday at a camp in Mera Tanolian, north of Islamabad, rain was pouring through the tents of refugees, who were still awaiting long-promised steel shelters from the government.
"Our tent is old and torn. One year has passed and we have not adequate shelter," said Zulekha Bibi, a 50-year-old mother of six children who huddled near her cooking fire.
Half of Bibi's tent floor was soaked in rain water, making the plunging temperatures nearly unbearable at night, she said.
This year's winter is forecast to hit earlier than usual and bring heavier than usual snows, Jamal said. But the aid situation is expected to be somewhat better than last year, when about 400,000 quake victims could only be reached by helicopter.
Winter deaths last year were diminished by what was widely praised as an efficient and fast-paced relief effort that entailed one of the largest U.N.-backed airlift operations in history.
Late last month, a U.N.-sponsored survey showed that more than half the survivors still living in refugee camps can't go home because they don't have land to return to, underlining one of the last hurdles facing recovery efforts.
Landslides or floods simply washed away the places where many of the remaining refugees had lived, while others can't return because of medical problems, the International Organization for Migration study showed.
Any return from the camps will be pushed into the first half of next year because of the harsh winter, further delaying recovery efforts, the organization said.
The quake toppled 600,000 homes, 6,500 schools and 800 clinics and hospitals, many in very inaccessible areas. More than 3,700 miles of roads were also destroyed.
Pakistani authorities say 80 percent of reconstruction will be completed within three years, but aid agencies have said it could take eight years to rebuild everything.
The WFP has budgeted about $67 million in aid for the two-year period from April 2006 to March 2008, but has so far received only 37 percent of the necessary funding, Jamal said.