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Quake Victims May Lose Lifeline

A U.N.-run airlift to isolated villages lacks the money to keep going. Donors promised much, but have given little of what is needed.

October 29, 2005|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Helicopters delivering food and rescuing injured earthquake survivors could soon be grounded because the airlift is running out of money, frustrated United Nations officials warned Friday.

The U.N. has enough cash to keep choppers flying into northern Pakistan's quake zone for only another week, senior relief officials said in a frantic appeal for donors to deliver money and food.

"It is now or never," Jan Vandemoortele, the U.N.'s earthquake relief coordinator, told reporters. "We will not have a second chance.

"Tomorrow will be too late for thousands and thousands of victims," he added, "especially babies and small children vulnerable to pneumonia, diarrhea and malnutrition."

Survivors in remote villages will die if the U.N. doesn't immediately receive $50 million to keep relief helicopters flying into areas that will be cut off by snow in the coming weeks, said Matthew Hollingworth, the World Food Program's logistics chief here.

The relief operation is short about $120 million for the next five months, Hollingworth said.

The United States and 59 other countries pledged $580 million for additional earthquake relief at a conference in Geneva on Wednesday, but the U.N. has received only 20% of the money it needs immediately to provide emergency shelter, food and other relief before the brutal Himalayan winter isolates hundreds of devastated mountain villages.

And countries often pledge aid that is never delivered, officials pointed out.

"Let us all think: What if that child that will catch pneumonia tomorrow was my child?" Vandemoortele said. "What if that leg that is going to be amputated tomorrow is going to be my mother's leg?"

Doctors working in northern Pakistan, which was heavily damaged in the Oct. 8 quake, are already reporting cases of pneumonia and bronchitis, as well as tetanus among victims who went days or weeks without getting treatment for injuries.

The U.S. leads the donors list. It has paid or made legally binding commitments to pay more than $80 million in relief, according to U.N. figures. That amounts to 31% of total contributions and commitments, which exclude nonbinding pledges.

Japan and Qatar are next on the donors list, with contributions and commitments of about $20 million each. Private donors make up the fourth-largest category, with more than $16 million in donations.

The magnitude 7.6 quake killed at least 54,000 people, though some estimates put the toll at close to 80,000. It injured 78,000 others and left 3.3 million people homeless.

Relief agencies are short 200,000 winter tents that "are desperately needed now," said Chris Lom, a spokesman for the International Organization of Migration.

Realizing that the tents won't arrive in time, relief workers are shifting tactics to help survivors "salvage the remains of their houses and start to rebuild" before winter weather arrives, Lom added.

Aid agencies also are rushing to provide tin sheets, tarps, metal frames and other supplies to build emergency shelters insulated with packed earth, especially in villages above the snow line, Lom said.

"We need money for tents and shelter materials, and we need money for the logistics to deliver them to the victims," he said.

Lom added that "nobody is under any illusion" that people will not die if the aid does not arrive within a few weeks.

The U.N. has enough relief food here to feed 500,000 people for two months, but aid workers must feed an estimated 2.3 million people, Hollingworth said.

"That means many will go without food," he said.

Some doctors have already reported malnutrition, but it will be widespread and severe in two months, Hollingworth warned.

The U.N. has been borrowing money from other programs and dipping into its reserve funds to pay for the relief effort, but the cash will run out within a week, officials said.

Relief workers acknowledge that at first they didn't realize the extent of the catastrophe or how difficult it would be to deliver aid to hundreds of destroyed villages across a wide, mountainous region.

But repeated pleas for urgent help in recent days have failed to persuade foreign donors to deliver the money, food and tents that are crucial to saving lives over the next several weeks, U.N. officials said.

They called the massive effort more daunting than the one that followed December's Asian tsunami, to which the world responded much more quickly.

"The scale and complexity are horrendous," Vandemoortele said. "Many people ... are still waiting in the cold for desperately needed assistance."



Monetary help

Donors have given or made legally binding commitments to pay more than $259 million for humanitarian assistance since the deadly Pakistani earthquake earlier this month. The amount includes $16.3 million from private donors.

Long-term commitments of top donors (in millions of dollars)

United States: $80.7

Japan: $20.2

Qatar: $20.0

Netherlands: $15.6

Sweden: $14.9

Britain: $13.3

Norway: $12.7

Italy: $11.1

Canada: $7.9

Australia: $7.7


Source: United Nations

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