Quake camps in Pakistan needed until summer

Tent camps sheltering earthquake victims in devastated northern Pakistan may be needed for another six months, a U.N. official said Saturday, as the United States signed a US$200 million grant for rebuilding the country. Visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns signed over the aid money, part of US$510 million earlier pledged by Washington, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said. The grant covers four years, with the first US$15 million available Saturday.

Burns said the money would go toward rebuilding schools and hospitals destroyed when the massive Oct. 8 quake struck Pakistan's Kashmir region and surrounding areas. The aid came after a United Nations report said the harsh Himalayan winter was testing the "strength and resilience of the population as well as the capacity of the humanitarian community to deliver much-needed relief."

By summer, some people whose homes were reduced to rubble, washed away in floods or buried in landslides will still need temporary shelter, said Ben Malor, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We want to believe at this point that the number will be small," he said Saturday.

The OCHA report, released Friday, says safe drinking water is available to only about 47 percent of 810,000 refugees initially targeted for the winter, while access to latrines is available to only about 138,000 about half the number that authorities hoped to provide under its winter plan.

The assessment highlights the misery felt by nearly 3.5 million people left without their homes in freezing conditions by the 7.6-magnitude earthquake. Heavy snow and rain have forced repeated suspensions of aid flights, while a wave of landslides has cut off deliveries by trucks.

The earthquake killed 87,000 people, but aid workers worry the death toll will rise as winter weather intensifies hunger and misery. Many are without adequate shelter, clothing and are heavily reliant on food aid.

"Given existing conditions, it can be expected that a good number of camps will have to be maintained for another six months," the report said. But OCHA also noted that a much-feared spike in deaths due to winter weather has so far failed to materialize, despite an increase in cold-related illnesses.

A shortage of female doctors is hindering treatment of women, many of whom are reluctant to be examined by male physicians, the report said. In a field hospital near the city of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, doctors have seen a surge in patients suffering from illnesses such as pneumonia, 1,400 people in the past two days, according to Dr. Ghulam Resool.

Nearly three-quarters of the patients are children, he said. Among the victims was Qasim Jan, who brought her 8-year-old daughter to be treated for pneumonia, which she blamed on safety guidelines prohibiting fires in tents.

"It's impossible for me to light a fire and keep the tent warm," Jan said. "Due to this, my daughter has fallen ill." The United Nations warned earlier this week that conditions may further deteriorate with the spring thaw, when landslides could be triggered on waterlogged mountains and rivers swelled with snow melt could burst their banks and cause widespread flooding, reports the AP. N.U.