U.N. helicopters ferrying supplies to South Asia’s earthquake survivors will be grounded within a week and relief operations scaled back unless aid agencies receive more funding and donors make good on pledges worth millions of dollars, officials said Friday.
The warning comes with winter just weeks away and meteorologists forecasting a harsher than normal season in the Himalayan mountain region worst hit by the quake. Already, hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistani-ruled Kashmir are likely to face the frigid cold without shelter, and more than 2 million are in desperate need of food.
The United Nations has received $70.6 million in cash and $46.4 million in pledges for earthquake relief. That adds up to 20 percent of the $550 million it says it needs for the next six months. A donors’ conference in Geneva this week drew an additional $580 million in pledges for victims of the Oct. 8 quake, but those funds were not earmarked for the U.N. appeal.
The world body is pressing donors to specify where that money is going. They also want those who already promised money to U.N. agencies to make good on their pledges immediately.
Money running out for relief helicopters
“The situation is quite grim. With the money we have already, and much of it obtained from our own internal emergency reserves, we can keep the helicopters running for one week,” said Michael Jones of the U.N. World Food Program in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
With debris from landslides still blocking roads, helicopters have become lifelines for isolated towns and villages, delivering supplies and bringing injured to hospitals. Halting flights would be calamitous for hundreds of mountain communities.
Mohammed Hanif of the Pakistan Meteorological Department said his agency was expecting 18 feet of snow in the high Himalayas this winter, compared to a usual 10 feet. Average temperatures are predicted to be a few degrees below normal, as low as minus 4.
The United Nations buys commercial helicopters on the open market, and eight of the aircraft are now in Pakistan, said Elisabeth Byrs of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva.
Forty-four more helicopters are expected to reach Pakistan soon, of which 14 should be available for U.N. use, she said, but “if the money is not coming to the U.N., how will we be able to pay for those helicopters?”
The U.N. aircraft are among as many as 91 helicopters, including 22 from other nations and 18 from aid agencies, currently being used for aid missions, according to the Pakistani military. The choppers have been in constant use since the quake, except for a few days when heavy rain grounded flights.
But while the U.N. helicopters are relatively few in number, “of course relief operations would be affected if the U.N. doesn’t get the money they need to continue” relief activities, said army spokesman Gen. Shaukat Sultan. “Each and every helicopter ferrying relief goods for quake victims is important for Pakistan.”
Over 2 million need food
Jones, of the World Food Program, said an estimated 2.3 million people need food. With its current funds, the U.N. agency could help 500,000 people for two months, he said. The WFP is appealing for $100 million to provide air support for aid operations for all agencies.
The 7.6-magnitude earthquake, which left an estimated 79,000 dead, has created major logistical challenges for relief workers battling cold, hunger and disease among survivors.
Thousands of victims still turn up each day at makeshift clinics, suffering increasingly from diseases such as scabies, diarrhea and pneumonia. More than 3,400 people sought treatment around the devastated northern town of Balakot on Thursday, 400 with suspected cases of acute respiratory infection, known as ARI, said Sacha Bootsma, communications officer for the World Health Organization in Islamabad.
“People are coming from remote areas to be treated,” she said. “Increasing numbers are being treated for ARI because of the cold weather and lack of shelter.”
The official death toll from the quake in Pakistan rose Friday to 56,000, but central government figures have consistently lagged behind those of local officials, which put the country’s toll at about 78,000. An additional 1,350 people died in Indian-held Kashmir.
Amid the struggle to help survivors, India and Pakistan prepared to start talks on opening up their militarized border to allow Kashmiris to seek relief from either side, with a delegation from New Delhi arriving for meetings scheduled for Saturday.
“We hope that we will reach an agreement with India,” said Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam. Both governments have offered proposals to set up relief camps on their respective sides and are expected to discuss specific details this weekend.
Allowing Kashmiris to cross the so-called Line of Control is a particularly sensitive issue for New Delhi because of a 16-year Islamic insurgency in India’s part of Kashmir by militants seeking the territory’s independence or merger with Pakistan.