Six months on: Aid effort saved lives but Pakistan quake survivors need continuing support
Better monitoring of returnees and resolution of land issues needed
Six months after last year's earthquake, many of the two million people left homeless by Pakistan's biggest natural disaster face a critical time, said Oxfam International on Friday.
So far the relief effort has generally been a success, according to Oxfam. Despite the massive challenges of scale, location and logistics, major outbreaks of serious disease have been prevented, remote communities accessed and a second disaster averted.
"Thanks both to a relatively mild winter and the combined efforts of the Pakistani authorities, aid agencies and donors, the two million people left homeless by the earthquake survived a Himalayan winter without the second humanitarian catastrophe that was widely feared," said Farhana Faruqi Stocker, head of Oxfam in Pakistan.
"This is great news and couldn't have been achieved without the generous support of the public."
More support is now needed as thousands of displaced people are being moved from official camps to their homes areas while authorities begin to implement plans for rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Aid agencies are concerned that camp residents in some areas have been moved:
without clear monitoring to track the movement of vulnerable people,
without sufficient communication about official plans and entitlements,
and without the provision of alternative land.
"Oxfam International supports the idea that displaced people should be helped to return home," said Stocker. "This process must be safe, voluntary, dignified and informed, with the authorities ensuring adequate support facilities are put in place where people are returning. Such a process would be much more sustainable and effective in the long term."
"We welcome the positive steps the authorities are taking towards achieving these objectives," she added, "but with thousands already sent home, more needs to happen on the ground now."
British sports celebrity Amir Khan, who met numerous earthquake survivors and looked at Oxfam's work during a visit to Pakistani-administered Kashmir on Thursday, urged all parties to support those affected as much as possible.
"These people have lived through a massive earthquake and survived a winter of snow and rain camped in tents next to the Himalayas," said the 2004 Olympic silver medalist boxer after visiting camps near the city of Muzaffarabad. "We all need to work together to give them as much help, care and time as they need to rebuild their homes and their lives."
Several aid organizations have reported that many camps have been closed with no clear indication of what has happened to vulnerable people such as the sick, the disabled, widows with infants, and the landless.
"Many people tell us they want to return but cannot go back home because their villages have been buried under landslides," said Stocker. "A well-assisted, managed recovery phase is needed to prevent such people ending up in new spontaneous camps."
"Additionally, the results of seismic surveys should be fully published so that displaced people know where they can safely begin reconstruction", said Stocker.
More than 1840 aftershocks have rocked the region since last October's disaster. A quake measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale hospitalized at least a dozen people in the region on Tuesday.
"We have to make sure that if another major earthquake comes, people are better prepared," said Khan. "That means building better and stronger homes and communities than they had before."
Tremors, rain and snow have also contributed to daily hazardous landslides. The danger from landslides is expected to become particularly severe during the monsoon rains due in June and July.
The fate of displaced people in crowded spontaneous camps, where conditions have usually been much worse than in official camps, remains a glaring issue.
With rising temperatures – expected to soar past 30C/86F in April and past 40C/104F around June across much of the region – raising the risk of disease, greater attention and support is required to prevent a serious health problem arising.
"We shouldn't forget to support the many displaced people still living in smaller groups of tents that are not classed as camps," added Stocker.
More than 73,000 people were confirmed dead and a similar number injured after a powerful earthquake registering 7.6 on the Richter scale rocked Pakistani-administered Kashmir on 8 October 2005. India says nearly 1,400 have died in the sector it administers.
The lack of adequate winterized shelter was a serious issue for the first half of the winter. A lack of coordination also hampered the work and aims of relief agencies in the first few months after the earthquake, resulting in duplication of effort and inadequate aid coverage in some remote areas.
The international community should draw appropriate lessons, says Oxfam International, notably by deploying dedicated human and financial resources more quickly and effectively in the future through a properly funded United Nations-led response.
Oxfam International has provided water and sanitation facilities for over 540,000 men, women and children in the earthquake-affected area. The organization has distributed winterized tents and transitional shelter kits for more than 350,000 people while its livelihood program has helped over 40,000 rebuild their lives.