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Helping quake-affected children to survive a cold winter

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Ryberg
Zulfaqar, 3, and her father live in the village of Katabalah in Sirhan Valley, Pakistan, at an altitude of 2201 meters. The red rash-like spotting on her cheek is frostbite from exposure to the bitter cold of the Himalayan winter.

By Julia Spry-Leverton

NORTH WEST FRONTIER PROVINCE, Pakistan, 22 December 2005 - The long shadows of winter are falling on the Himalayan mountains. The shortest day of the year has dawned and temperatures in northern Pakistan have plummeted. During daytime, at altitudes of 5,000 feet and above, the temperature often stays below the freezing point. And at night, temperatures that plunge to minus 15 Celsius are nothing new to children and their families living in this mountainous region.

And this is just the beginning. The weather forecast says snow will soon hit all of the earthquake-ravaged areas in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The winter may last beyond the end of March in villages in the higher altitudes.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Ryberg
Children from the village of Katabalah in Sirhan Valley, Pakistan. Temperatures here often plunge to minus 15 Celsius at night during the winter.

Blankets and quilts urgently needed

How to survive the bitter chill has been a major concern for everyone living and working here. In the aftermath of the earthquake, there are an estimated 235,000 families of about seven people each now living in tents.

According to a rapid assessment done by the UN, one tenth of these tents are too thin to withstand the winter. The report also says some 75 per cent of the households require additional protection to get through the winter. Items like blankets, quilts, plastic sheeting, and tarpaulins are urgently needed.

UNICEF has procured 215,000 blankets and quilts to prepare children and families for the winter. In addition, the Government of France has donated 13,000 quilts through the French National Committee for UNICEF, and another 335,000 are on the way from home furnishing company Ikea. But the need is huge beyond these amounts, another 1 million blankets or half a million quilts are still needed.

UNICEF has also distributed 53,100 sets of winter clothing to children, which consist items like warm jackets and winter boots. “Again, we need masses more – we can use a further 800,000 kits of these essential items of warm clothing for children,” said UNICEF Emergency Coordinator Dr. Agostino Paganini.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Ryberg
Boys from the village of Jabber in Sirhan Valley, Pakistan. Few relief trucks reached this isolated area in the months following the earthquake.

As these supplies begin to pour into the Pakistani capital Islamabad in bulk, huge logistical challenges will soon kick in. “We’re talking about a factory-style operation to get these numbers packed into sets for different age groups,” says Olivier Mulet, a UNICEF logistician. “We’re planning for 100 people working round the clock to push these supplies through and rush them out to our partners for distribution.”

Children at risk in surviving the winter

Although there has been no major epidemic, many children are already suffering from acute respiratory infections in the quake-affected areas. “The inclusion of the antibiotic cotrimoxazole in syrup form in the health kits with which UNICEF is equipping community health workers will help to treat these infections, but it’s better by far if parents can keep children warm and so avoid them getting sick,” added Dr. Paganini.

To monitor children’s conditions in the high altitude villages, which could be cut off soon by the snowfall, UNICEF sent photographer Niclas Ryberg to the high slopes above the Sirhan Valley in NWFP. This is an area where few relief trucks have reached in the last few weeks. At Nakot, a village at 1966 meters, Ryberg found himself the first outsider to visit the village of 127 families since the earthquake.

In Ryberg’s photos, one can see some of the boys wear only cotton kamis, and on some children’s cheeks there are bright red rash-like spotting, indicating exposure to biting cold. This evidence will be crucial for agencies like UNICEF to determine delivery priorities and how quickly the supplies need to reach the most vulnerable.




9 December 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on the distribution of winter clothing to children affected by the earthquake in Pakistan.

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