MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan – Thousands of people could die unnecessarily from disease, diarrhea and untreated injuries if a disaster-weary world doesn’t help quake-ravaged Pakistan, UNICEF’s chief warned during a helicopter tour of the region Sunday.
Ann Veneman said the window of opportunity to act is closing, with winter rolling rapidly toward the unforgiving Himalayan mountains. Forecasters are predicting a colder than usual winter, with up to 17 feet of snow in some places. Relief officials say some 800,000 quake survivors could face the frigid weather with absolutely no shelter.
“The fear is that we could lose thousands of people additionally to diarrhea, disease and injuries that are not treated,” Veneman told the Associated Press in an interview during the helicopter tour. “It’s absolutely urgent that as much aid gets in as possible. This is an area that will get much colder as the winter comes, and the people are going to need shelter and blankets.”
Some 80,000 people are believed to have died in the 7.6-magnitude quake on Oct. 8, and 3.3 million have been left homeless. Half the victims are believed to be children, according to UNICEF.
Despite dire warnings of a looming calamity, the United Nations has had difficulty raising money for the quake victims. As of Friday, it had received just 20 percent of the $550 million it needs for the next six months. Officials have warned that the shortfall could force U.N. helicopters to stop flying as early as this week.
UNICEF controls $62 million of the aid pledge, but has so far received just $13.5 million.
Veneman, a former secretary of agriculture in the Bush administration, joined a chorus of voices calling on the world to act.
“Without urgent action, large numbers of children could die needlessly,” she said, adding that she believed that aid has been slower to arrive because of the many natural calamities over the past year, including last December’s tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
“We’ve had disaster after disaster after disaster this year. The media hasn’t given it as much attention,” she said, expressing hope that funding would come through before winter.
Zobaida Jalal, Pakistan’s minister of social welfare who accompanied Veneman on the trip, said the tragedy was unavoidable, but she called the current crisis a test of the world’s humanity.
“The earthquake was a natural calamity that nobody could do anything about, but if these people are allowed to die now, that would be more of a tragedy,” she said. “It will be on the consciences of many people and many governments forever.”
Among the urgent needs: 600,000 tents to house the homeless and an equal number of latrines. According to UNICEF, communicable diseases are increasing tenfold daily in some areas. It said more than 1,500 tons of human waste is entering the environment each day because of the 4 million people who must go to the bathroom out of doors – a huge health risk in the coming weeks and months.
Veneman flew over the flattened northwestern town of Balakot before landing at a U.N.-supported relief camp in Garhi Habibullah where 2,200 survivors have taken shelter in row after row of canvas tents. At one temporary classroom, girls sang to her, while a boy nearby drew pictures of his former house with crayons.
“It’s devastating to see … all the buildings that have fallen down, to see people’s lives completely shattered, to see a tent next to a house that was there,” Veneman said.
In Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-held Kashmir, the UNICEF chief visited a tent school that has sprung up next to the ruins of a high school where 84 girls and six teachers perished.
“It’s good to be back in school, but all of my best friends are dead,” said student Mehmouda Hassan, 12. “I don’t think I will ever make friends like that again.”
Local school officials say some 5,000 children and 100 teachers died in the district of Muzaffarabad alone. UNICEF reported that some 6,700 schools were destroyed in Pakistan’s North West Frontier province and another 1,300 in Pakistani Kashmir – more than half the total in the quake-affected regions.
Just ahead of Veneman’s arrival, several hundred girls crammed into the hot, dusty tent for an Urdu-language lesson that illustrated how totally the quake has overtaken their lives. Most people in Muzaffarabad speak Punjabi at home, but learn Urdu in school.
On the blackboard the teacher had written “The Earthquake and Me” and “Hope for Life” above a vocabulary list that included words like tremor, dizzy, lonely and scared.
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