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South Asia earthquake: returning from the field

26-10-2005 Feature

Having just returned from Pakistan-administered Kashmir where they have been involved in relief operations, ICRC staff have been speaking about the extent of the damage and the humanitarian challenges ahead.

Riccardo Conti is the head of the ICRC's Water and Habitat unit and arrived in the affected area the day after the earthquake.

" There is extensive damage over a wide area, " he explains, " this makes it so different to the Bam earthquake which was also strong but more limited in the geographical area involved. "

At least 30,000 people are officially known to have perished in the disaster with some estimates putting the final toll as high as 100,000. Tens of thousands are injured and millions have been left homeless.

For this reason, Conti explains, that the emphasis for the ICRC has been on providing emergency medical assistance and shelter. 

The ICRC has been trucking or airlifting tents to the affected areas when necessary although helicopters are able to transfer sixteen times as many tarpaulins in one trip which can also provide the temporary shelter necessary. 

Some local people have already been trying to reconstruct ready made shelters from the rubble of their former houses. Members of the ICRC team said people were grateful to be able to rebuild their own homes and the ICRC hopes to be able to provide more tools so that those who are able can continue to do this.

Others are too worried to sleep in their damaged houses for fear of aftershocks.

" Our priorities since arriving have been the evacuation of the wounded, evaluating needs that require an immediate response, distributing assistance and tracing, " says Conti.

In the affected villages, the ICRC has been trying to provide an int egrated approach to relief needs. Conti himself even lent his satellite phone to victims so that they could call relatives in Pakistan or abroad to let them know they had survived.

" This is particularly rewarding work, " says Conti, " when you can put people back in touch with each other. "

 Logistical challenge   

    

Many roads are impassable after the earthquake and remote areas in the Neelum valley are accessible only by helicopter.

The ICRC now has five helicopters in operation taking supplies into villages and bringing the most seriously injured out to be treated in the 100-bed ICRC field hospital in Muzaffarabad.

With the health care infrastructure seriously disrupted, mobile basic health care units manned by staff from the Japanese and Finnish Red Cross societies have been treating people in the field. A German Red Cross team is also now in service.

Even when roads are open Conti says there are difficult challenges to overcome and mules are being used in some areas to access villages.

    

 Economic impact   

    

The economic dislocation caused by the earthquake is hard to exaggerate.

Although some of the year's harvest has been saved, Barbara Boyle of the ICRC's economic security division says much of the year's crop had not yet been brought in and is therefore lost. Many tethered or sheltered cows and goats were killed whilst free-roaming sheep were mostly spared. 

In addition, she says that families will be unable to sow their traditional wheat crops in November and have few assets to fall back on. 

Furthermore, in some remote areas villagers depended on timber to earn a living and this activity has also been severely affected. 

The situation in Muzaffarabad is little better with many people having their livelihoods wiped out. Many of those living in the city are of rural origin and, since they were living in poor areas where buildings were less able to withstand the earthquake, suffered disproportionately.

In addition, many people came from rural areas to the city to supplement the family income and were killed when government buildings collapsed. Thus, their families at home are not only grieving for a loved one but have lost a valuable source of income.

 Two phase response  

    

Barbara Boyle explains that the ICRC has planned a two-stage response to the crisis.

" The emergency phase will consist of the ICRC providing 30,000 families or 150,000 people with shelter, essential household items and food. "

Of these families, 10,000 are only accessible by helicopter and it will be vital to strive to reach them before the onset of winter.

In phase two, says Boyle, there will be a need from spring onwards to provide assistance to people trying to relaunch their income generating potential, which will include agricultural/livestock support and micro-economic initiatives. Meanwhile, food assistance will have to be continued where necessary.

 Water and habitat   

    

In the period immediately after the disaster, ICRC specialists successfully worked with the local authorities to repair the water supply system in many parts of Muzaffarabad.

The ICRC has also been involved in the rehabilitation of health posts and dispensaries.

 Forensic programme  

    

Another challenge is the collection of victims'bodies.

Morris Tidball Binz of the ICRC's assistance division has also returned from the area and says that more than half of the dead have yet to be recovered.

" Thousands of families may never know the fate of their loved ones, " he says.

The ICRC has been supporting the Pakistani army and the authorities in their efforts in this domain, trying to establish the consolidation and management of information on the deceased.

It has also sent more than a thousand body bags to the area with more on the way.

    

 Movement response  

    

Conti says that the ICRC is closely coordinating its relief efforts not only with the Pakistani Red Crescent Society but also with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

He also praised the contribution of participating National Societies, including the Red Cross Societies of Japan, Finland, Germany, Norway and Britain.