Conditions could quickly deteriorate even further for millions of earthquake victims in northern Pakistan when the spring thaw in the icy mountains unleashes a torrent of landslides and floods, a U.N. official said Friday. A two-month U.N. survey of the quake-wracked Kashmir region shows it will take up to five years to restore roads to remote areas and that massive landslides triggered by snow melt will cut off more villages already struggling to survive.
"We know that when spring arrives, it's not the end of the troubles," said Caroline Chaumont, a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program, which coordinates aid to many of the 3.5 million people who lost their homes in the Oct. 8 quake. The assessment promises more misery even for those who survive the harsh Himalayan winter. Heavy snow and rain has forced repeated suspensions of aid flights, while a wave of landslides has cut off deliveries by truck.
Conditions could deteriorate in the coming months, when the thick blanket of snow covering Kashmir begins to melt, the WFP said in the survey, released earlier this week. The waterlogged soil is expected to trigger new landslides that will damage roads and bridges already partially wiped out by the quake. Tumbling earth will also cause widespread flooding as it blocks rivers and forces snow melt over their banks.
"The needs and duration of assistance could be greater and longer than originally anticipated, and helicopter operations should be maintained to supply tools, equipment, chemical fertilizer, seed and food," the WFP's operational update said. It will take several months after the April thaw to clear main roads for four-wheel-drive vehicles, while smaller roads could take up to five years to repair, it added.
To avert flooding, relief workers are setting up pumping stations at places where rivers have already been jammed by landslides. The Pakistani army is also building spillways to divert excess water, according to the Associated Press of Pakistan news agency. Overland routes bring food and supplies to roughly 500,000 of the 1 million people being fed by the WFP. Helicopters, by contrast, reach only 380,000.
"You have to think of the roads as an essential tool for bringing the country back to normal," Chaumont said. The earthquake killed 87,000 people, but aid workers worry that the death toll will rise as the harsh winter weather intensifies hunger and misery. Many are without adequate shelter and clothing and are heavily reliant on food aid. Facing an increased threat of fire as refugees try to warm themselves at the numerous tent villages that have sprung up, the Pakistani army began setting up firefighting stations at the camps on Friday. The sites are equipped with fire extinguishers, buckets of sand and water and shovels. Soldiers also began drilling refugees on what to do when fire breaks out, reports the AP. N.U.