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Huge need to rush warm clothing, blankets and quilts to the earthquake affected areas

© UNICEF/Zaidi/WC_0001
Cartons containing warm clothing and blankets being loaded at UNICEF wharehouse for dispatch to affected areas.

By Julia Spry-Leverton

The long shadows of midwinter are falling on the children of the Himalayas. The shortest day of the year has dawned and temperatures in northern Pakistan have plummeted. Even during daytime when sun lights the mountainsides for a few hours, at altitudes of 5000 feet and over the barometer frequently does not go above freezing, while at night it goes down to minus15 Celsius.

The weathermen now forecast snow for all of the country’s earthquake-hit areas in Pakistan administered Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province. And there are many months of the winter to go before this freeze will let up, perhaps even beyond the end of March or later in the highest villages.

The most acute concern of everyone working with those who survived the earthquake that hit this region 10 weeks ago is to keep the families whose homes were destroyed warm enough to survive the bitter chill. A rapid assessment of shelter needs done by the UN with the Federal Relief Commission reported that, at the below snowline level of 5000 feet, there are approximately 235,000 families (of about seven people each) now in tents, above and beyond those who are settled in the organised relief camps.

One tenth of the tents these people are living in are too thin to withstand the winter, the report notes. Some 75 per cent of the households require additional protection to get through the winter. Blankets and quilts are recommended as priority items, followed by plastic sheeting to strengthen the tents and tarpaulins to insulate the floors.

UNICEF is contributing to the effort with deliveries of blankets and quilts under way. With procurement of 215,000 already in the pipeline, every day there are gaily-painted trucks leaving from Islamabad piled high with these items by the thousand. Two days ago 4000 blankets bought on the local market, yesterday another 4000, and today 5000 quilts,  a donation from France, through the French National Committee for UNICEF and thanks to the efforts of the railwayworkers, the Societe Nationale de Chemin des Fers (SNCF.) Another  donation of quilts, 120,000 from manufacturer Ikea, is also about to arrive.

But the need is huge beyond these amounts, and the revised target for further procurement is 1 million blankets or half a million quilts - so that 2 blankets or 1 quilt per person can be distributed. The urgency is such that UNICEF supply staff are scouring the world market so the quantities coming in can be rapidly increased in the next few crucial days.

Conscious of the needs of children to be kept warm and dry in order to reduce the incidence of acute respiratory infections UNICEF is also aiming at speedy scaling up of warm clothing kits delivery. This is already well under way, with 53,100 sets already distributed and 212,400 more on the way. ‘Again, we need masses more – we can use a further 800,000 kits of these essential items of warm clothing for children,’ UNICEF Emergency Coordinator Dr Agostino Paganini announced, adding ‘These are needed now and should include padded jackets, snow boots, socks and thermal underwear.’

As the items are sourced and the bulk quantities begin to pour into Islamabad the demands of a huge logistical challenge will kick in. “We’re talking about a factory-style operation to get these numbers packed into sets for different age groups,” says Olivier Mulet, 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.”

Many children are already suffering from acute respiratory infections in the affected areas and although there has been no major epidemic, medical staff working in the Basic Health Units express worries about an inevitable steady increase with the colder weather ahead. Dr Paganini comments, ‘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.’

To monitor children’s conditions in the high altitude villages which will soon be cut off altogether by the snowfall UNICEF sent photographer Niclas Ryberg to the high slopes above the Sirhan Valley in NWFP. This is an area where relief trucks have reached rarely, if at all, in the last few weeks. Ryberg trekked on foot from Jabbar village up through tough rocky terrain. At Nakot, a village at 6450 feet, Ryberg was the first outsider to visit the village of 127 families in the ten weeks since the disaster.

Ryberg’s photos document the conditions for families in villages at this altitude. Some of the boys wear only cotton kamis, despite the weather, and on some children’s cheeks there are the telltale early signs of the bright red rash-like spotting that indicates exposure to biting cold.

These are hardy mountain families who would, in normal times, have all the coping mechanisms to last out a winter season with several weeks cut off from fresh supplies. After the quake their situation is very different - and their survival in question, with Ryberg confirming how anxious they are that the relief deliveries to make the crucial difference for them reach the village soon.




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