Post-earthquake Kashmir winter claims first life

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

BAGH, Pakistan -- The baby boy survived the devastating earthquake in the Himalayan highlands. Then came the cold and the snow.

On Monday, the 3-month-old became the first reported victim of what officials fear will be a new disaster for the 3.5 million Pakistanis who lost their homes last month: winter.

"This is exactly what we had feared. Our position here is we need to continue to do as much as possible to help mitigate this situation and prevent, insofar as that's possible, any such occurrences in the future," said Stephanie Bunker of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Another U.N. official, Elisabeth Byrs, said the relief effort remains underfunded and that, according to the Pakistani military, at least 300,000 people remain inaccessible in remote Himalayan regions. None have tents, she said.

Troops and aid workers are building shelters as fast as they can. But with heavy rains and a fresh blanket of snow over the last two days heralding the onset of the region's harsh winter, it is not fast enough for those who have been living rough since the Oct. 8 earthquake that killed more than 87,000 people.

"It is only the beginning of winter. We are concerned," said Byrs, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva. "The race to provide suitable shelter in time is not lost yet, but the consequences resulting from a lack of funds could result in more deaths of vulnerable people" such as the elderly and infants.

Of the 500,000 tents the United Nations purchased and stockpiled for quake relief, about 165,000 have yet to be delivered, with weather conditions worsening every day, she said.

Stoves and corrugated iron sheeting also are urgently required, as many tents are not winterized, Byrs said. So far, the U.N. has received $216 million in emergency relief funds, only 39 percent of its appeal for $550 million.

All helicopters were grounded Sunday due to bad weather and they did not resume flying until later Monday, Byrs said. She said UNICEF, the U.N.'s children agency, already reported difficulties transporting water and sanitation gear into the Niloum Valley.

"If we don't get people into shelters, they will die. It's as simple as that," said Air Commodore Andrew Walton, commander of the NATO disaster response team in Pakistan.

"That's the second disaster that's waiting to happen if we in the international community don't do something about it," he said at a NATO field hospital in Bagh, a town in Pakistan's part of disputed Kashmir.

A middle-aged man suffering from terminal cancer also died Monday -- at a NATO hospital, a day after he was brought in with hypothermia, said Lt. Col. Johan De Graaf, the facility's senior medical officer.

"The reason for him dying was strictly the fact that he had cancer. He would have died that night or sometime the next morning. The fact that he had hypothermia coincided with the case," De Graaf said. He added that no hypothermia deaths have been referred or reported to his hospital.

Three-month-old Waqar Mukhtar died of pneumonia hours after he was brought to a hospital in the regional capital, Muzaffarabad, said Dr. Abdul Hamid.

More than 100 people were brought to hospitals in the region with hypothermia and respiratory diseases. That does not include the hundreds of women, children and the elderly already suffering from a variety of ailments even before the first cold snap.

Dozens lined up outside the NATO hospital, shivering in a cold rain. Ten-year-old Mohammed Shafi waited for cough medicine, drawing a brown shawl around his shaking body and slipping off his sandals to rub his bare feet together in a fruitless fight to stay warm.

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