Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Georgina Newman: Now Pakistan must rebuild from ruins

It's been six months since I visited northern Pakistan, the region devastated by the worst earthquake in its history. I saw villages, fields and roads hurled down mountainsides. Entire villages were wiped out, their inhabitants entombed in the rubble of their own homes.

A region a little smaller than the North Island was completely crumpled. Broken homes and bridges threw up macabre sculptures and landslides gouged huge troughs out of the mountains.

According to official figures, around 73,000 people died in last October's quake, although most aid agencies put the number nearer to 100,000.

A United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) survey showed that almost 5 per cent of the population was killed that day - the highest death toll was babies and children under five.

By and large the effort to protect those who survived the brutal winter was a great success. The generosity of people in New Zealand undoubtedly helped to save many lives.

Pakistan was also blessed with an unusually mild winter. It had been feared the tents provided would collapse under the weight of snow.

The feared second wave of deaths from disease didn't materialise. The total death toll remained largely those who perished on the day.

The success of dealing with this disaster was attributed to the fast work of the Pakistani Government, international funds donors and the use of 100 helicopters to take supplies to remote mountain areas.

In many respects it was a dream operation in nightmare conditions.

Now, six months on, as the harsh Himalayan winter fades, the emergency relief effort is shifting gear to long-term rehabilitation.

What was for aid agencies a sprint to save lives is now a marathon to restore whole communities.

Those who survived that awful day face the Herculean challenge of starting their lives again. This process has been encouraged by the Government's carrot-and-stick tactics.

The carrot of compensation is being tied to rebuilding. The stick is that since the end of March, authorities started closing the relief camps. So far more than 18,000 people have been sent home.

The Government argues this is necessary to prevent people becoming dependent on handouts. Many of the aid agencies in the relief effort agree. The fringes of some African war zones are still pockmarked with 20-year-old refugee camps - tent cities that simply can't close - and they fear a repeat of that in northern Pakistan.

Now is the time for people to return home. The monsoon starts in July, making movement treacherous again. It is a small and vital window of opportunity.

Unicef has provided each family in the relief camps with a return-home kit including clothes, food, blankets, jerry cans and cooking equipment. Vulnerable people such as widows, orphans and the elderly have been registered and taken to transitional camps until they are able to go back home in safety or be provided with alternative land.

A casualty of the earthquake was the already fragile educational system. A total of 7,669 schools were destroyed, killing 18,000 students, many of whom were crushed at their desks.

The silver lining of this disaster is the new demand for schooling from children and parents.

Northern Pakistan is a conservative region where literacy levels are low and female enrolment in schools is minimal. For many children, especially girls, relief camps provided their first taste of education. As life shifts back home, communities' appetites have been whetted.

Many aid agencies are pushing for schools to be a priority in the Government's reconstruction budgets. Out of this disaster it's warming to think an opportunity has been created to change a generation of children's lives.

Pakistan needs to reconstruct more than half a million homes in some of the most remote areas of the country.

Even if people manage to get home, there is no guarantee their home is where they left it. A lot of land simply doesn't exist any more, having slipped down the mountainside. Much of what remains bears such deep cracks it cannot be cultivated.

And many people are just too frightened to go home. Since the earthquake there have been almost 2000 major aftershocks. This is traumatic for a nation with already frayed nerves.

For towns I visited like Balakot, which was pretty much at the epicentre of the 7.8 quake, rebuilding may not be an option.

Two deadly fault lines run straight underneath it. Because of this the Government plans to move the town 10km away. This once thriving tourist spot will become a permanent mausoleum - many of the dead still lie unclaimed beneath the debris.

Dan Toole, Unicef's emergency manager, said Pakistan, "We have quite a lot of work to do - the Government of Pakistan, national organisations, the UN and others - to keep people alive.

"We need to push as much as we can: supplies, equipment, cement, food, construction advice, engineers into those hills. It is really going to be tough."

* Georgina Newman is communications manager for Unicef NZ.

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