October 29, 2005 in Nation/World

Relief copters may be grounded

Zarar Khan Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Earthquake survivors watch as a medical helicopter lands to collect injured for evacuation from Balakot, Pakistan, on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan – U.N. helicopters ferrying supplies to South Asia’s earthquake survivors will be grounded within a week and relief operations scaled back unless aid agencies receive more funding and donors make good on pledges worth millions of dollars, officials said Friday.

The warning comes with winter just weeks away and meteorologists forecasting a harsher than normal season in the Himalayan mountain region worst hit by the quake. Already, hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistani-ruled Kashmir are likely to face the frigid cold without shelter, and more than 2 million are in desperate need of food.

The United Nations has received $70.6 million in cash and $46.4 million in pledges for earthquake relief. That adds up to 20 percent of the $550 million it says it needs for the next six months. A donors’ conference in Geneva this week drew an additional $580 million in pledges for victims of the Oct. 8 quake, but those funds were not earmarked for the U.N. appeal.

The world body is pressing donors to specify where that money is going. They also want those who already promised money to U.N. agencies to make good on their pledges immediately.

“The situation is quite grim. With the money we have already, and much of it obtained from our own internal emergency reserves, we can keep the helicopters running for one week,” said Michael Jones of the U.N. World Food Program in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

With debris from landslides still blocking roads, helicopters have become lifelines for isolated towns and villages, delivering supplies and bringing injured to hospitals. Halting flights would be calamitous for hundreds of mountain communities.

Mohammed Hanif of the Pakistan Meteorological Department said his agency was expecting 18 feet of snow in the high Himalayas this winter, compared with a usual 10 feet. Average temperatures are predicted to be a few degrees below normal, as low as minus 4.

The United Nations buys commercial helicopters on the open market, and eight of the aircraft are now in Pakistan, said Elisabeth Byrs of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva.

Forty-four more helicopters are expected to reach Pakistan soon, of which 14 should be available for U.N. use, she said, but “if the money is not coming to the U.N., how will we be able to pay for those helicopters?”

The U.N. aircraft are among as many as 91 helicopters, including 22 from other nations and 18 from aid agencies, currently being used for aid missions, according to the Pakistani military. The choppers have been in almost constant use since the quake.

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