Millions are homeless in South Asia quake area as winter closes in, UN official says

7 November 2005

In the wake of the devastating earthquake in the Himalayan foothills a month ago, some 3 million people are spending their 30th night in the open while relief workers are continuing a "marathon sprint" to save lives as the mercury begins to drop to harsh winter levels, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator said today in New York.

On the positive side, some of the roads blocked by about 900 landslides have been cleared, allowing vehicles to deliver food and non-food supplies that were previously moved only by helicopter, mules or on foot, Under-Secretary-General Jan Egeland, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a press briefing.

Tens of thousands of people on the lower levels of the mountainous region had been added to those receiving food, supplies and services, such as sanitation, every week. About 334,000 tents had been delivered, while another 322,000 tents were expected. Relief workers had distributed about 3.2 million blankets, while 4.8 million blankets were in the pipeline, he said.

On the other hand, some 150,000 people had descended from the heights into hard-to-reach valleys, while at least 200,000 people had refused to leave their ancestral areas above the snow line, with limited access to aid, as weather experts predicted a harsh winter, with a foot of snow expected around the earthquake epicentre in November, five feet in December and eight feet in January, he said.

"This is the race against the clock that we've been talking about for some time," Mr. Egeland said, adding that the whole region would be covered with its first snows in two to four weeks.

The official death toll had reached 73,000 and would likely increase to 80,000, with the wounded dying for lack of medical help, he warned.

Mr. Egeland estimated that about 10 to 20 per cent of the 200,000 people living at the higher levels had not received help. Relief officials wanted to reach each village and provide sufficient food and shelter for those people who would not leave so they could survive until reconstruction could begin in the spring.

On the question of funding, he said the UN relief agencies had received $84 million of the $133 million pledged, while most of the larger total of $1.03 billion was bilateral funds earmarked for reconstruction beginning in the spring, rather than for saving lives now.


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