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Refugees International

OCTOBER 27, 2005
10:46 AM

CONTACT:  Refugees International
Joel R. Charny, or 202.828.0110

South Asia Earthquake:

WASHINGTON – “What we need [in Kashmir] is something like no other emergency relief effort. We need to think differently. We need a second Berlin airlift. If they could do that at the end of the 1940s, set up in no time a lifeline to millions, we should be able to do that in 2005.”
-Jan Egeland, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs
October 20, 2005

On the eve of a ministerial level donor conference in Geneva, the situation in the earthquake-affected areas of Kashmir, especially in Pakistan, is grim. The October 8 earthquake damaged the homes of three million people in rugged, mountainous terrain and an estimated 800,000 people are still sleeping in the open as night-time temperatures plummet and cold rains fall. The total number of deaths is at least 50,000; an estimated 67,000 people are severely wounded and vulnerable to death from infections if treatment is unavailable.

Urgent requirements for aid and logistical support include helicopters; 210,000 winterized tents; two million blankets and sleeping bags; food assistance for at least one million people (though the UN World Food Program warns that this number may rise); generators and diesel fuel; stoves and kitchen sets; and water bladders for hospitals. Helicopters are the linchpin of the relief effort as thousands of people are isolated due to severe damage to roads and bridges. With snowfall expected to start by the end of November at the latest, the window for action is closing rapidly.

The world wide response to the earthquake emergency has been reasonably generous on paper, but pledges have been slow to translate into immediate assistance in the affected areas. More than $500 million has been pledged, including more than $300 million combined from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. These funds, however, are not being channeled through the United Nations system and their actual and potential operational impact is at best uncertain. In the meantime, the UN has only $96 million in pledges to its appeal, far short of the $500 million that the UN operational agencies require to mount a comprehensive response.

Despite the magnitude of the earthquake and the massive displacement that it produced, the Kashmir crisis has not galvanized the world’s citizenry as the tsunami did. Individual and corporate donations to non-governmental organizations to date are at the level of a minor natural disaster rather than one that affected three million people. Reasons for the tepid response include the remoteness of the affected area; the fact that the earthquake’s victims included few, if any, individuals from industrialized countries, in contrast to the tsunami, which was a global phenomenon affecting wealthy tourists as well as poor fishermen; and, especially in the United States, a sense that this was one disaster too many, coming on the heels of the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. In this context, the earthquake response has not and will not become a public event with which everyone from stretched relief officials to corporate leaders to school children feels compelled to engage.

Government action is therefore the only way forward. Only regional and international military powers can make up the deficit in helicopters. Russia is notably absent from offering this support and the United States, which has contributed eight military helicopters, should be able to do more. Immediate cash contributions are needed to critical UN first response agencies, especially the World Food Program, which is facing daunting logistical hurdles in obtaining and pre-positioning enough food to reach people in isolated areas or to establish food stocks in more accessible areas towards which the homeless are moving. Organizing the immediate provision of as many winterized tents and blankets as possible is essential.

Pakistan and India have to date still not resolved the political obstacles to greater regional cooperation on the Kashmir emergency. If an agreement were reached, Indian territory, which was hit, but less severely, could be a staging area for relief flights using the considerable Indian logistical capability. Proposals have also been floated to open more border crossing points between the two countries to allow people to find safety and shelter where it is available. If necessary, United Nations should engage politically, at the level of the Secretary-General, to see if it is possible for Pakistan and India to agree on the terms of immediate life-saving measures that would increase the overall effectiveness of the relief effort.

The October 26 ministerial level donor conference takes place with hundreds of thousands of people homeless and at risk of being cut off from international assistance for many weeks. Donor governments, even in the face of funding shortfalls and logistical obstacles, need to find the political will and the resources to respond to the South Asia earthquake at a level commensurate with the number of lives at stake.

Joel R. Charny is Vice President for Policy for Refugees International.


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