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Pakistan: from ‘Quake Jumpers’ to relay trucks, UN rushes in relief as snows fall

Pakistan: from ‘Quake Jumpers’ to relay trucks, UN rushes in relief as snows fall

A 'Quake Jumper'  in the Kaghan valley
From Chinook helicopters to four-wheel-drive relay trucks to specialized teams of ‘Quake Jumpers,’ the United Nations is pulling out all the stops to rush in aid to the victims of Pakistan’s devastating earthquake as the winter snow line drops by the day and rain at lower elevations makes life cold and miserable.

With snow already falling in areas above 2,600 metres, three British Chinook helicopters will be added to the fleet of relief craft tomorrow, airlifting 238 tons of UN refugee agency supplies to locations in the Leepa Valley, including 2,000 tents, 36,000 blankets, 4,000 kitchen sets, 4,000 plastic sheets and 4,000 jerry cans.

But perhaps the most novel operation, introduced just this weekend, is the use of the so-called Quake Jumpers – small, highly skilled mobile units of Pakistani mountain guides flown in by helicopter as close to the quake zone as possible by the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

Provided by WFP with satellite communications equipment and high-altitude survival packs, they probe deep on foot into the disaster zone, and help assess the needs of communities they find, constructing helipads to facilitate the arrival of relief supplies and helping to organize the distribution of incoming emergency goods.

WFP estimates that there are about 100,000 people in remote mountain areas who have received no aid whatsoever, many of whom are without shelter.

The Quake Jumpers will be targeting settlements of about 2,000 people that are being visited rarely or not at all. The plan is to open up 25 new helipads in mountain locations in the coming weeks, but to do this the operation will need more manpower. The goal is to have 14 four-man teams working through the winter.

Moving on a more traditional level, convoys of relief trucks organized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set out daily from Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, winding up roads only recently cleared of landslides, the asphalt in places hanging precipitously over the void left by the slipping earth.

After a few switchback turns on a mixture of rocks and dirt, the wheels of the lead truck are often left spinning in the mud, stalling the whole operation and progress comes to a halt. A relay is now needed from a nearby army camp to borrow a couple of four-wheel-drive trucks. By off-loading some supplies onto these vehicles, the convoy can continue its climb up the mountain.

Since the earthquake struck on 8 October, killing nearly 80,000 people, injuring almost as many others and leaving up to 3 million homeless, UNHCR has brought in more than 20,000 family tents and 270,000 blankets, 33,000 jerry cans, 28,000 kitchen sets, 4,300 stoves, 83,000 plastic sheets and thousands of other items into Pakistan.

But lack of funding remains a major obstacle for us to purchase additional goods. For the month of November alone, the agency needs $18 million, but has so far received only $8.6 million.

WFP, too, is struggling with funding shortfalls. Of the $100 million required for its helicopter operations, it has so far received only $24.8 million. But recent donations from the United States ($5 million), Norway ($3.6 million), Canada ($3.4 million) and Denmark ($1.8 million) has allowed the agency to extend the life of the mission in Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Kashmir for at least another two months.

“The size of the overall fleet was originally larger, but we had to shelve plans to increase it when funding was dangerously low,” WFP Regional Director for the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus, Amir Abdulla, said.

WFP is currently deploying 13 MI-8 and two MI-26 helicopters to airlift food and supplies to the worst-affected communities.

The combined airlift is now moving between 70 and 100 metric tons of relief aid every day. “This is the largest humanitarian helicopter airlift operation WFP has ever launched,” Mr. Abdulla said.