The massive earthquake that struck near the Pakistan-India border on October 8 caused widespread devastation, triggering a horrible humanitarian catastrophe. North western Pakistan was the hardest hit - where before there were cities, roads, hospitals and schools, now the only things left are rubble. It breaks my heart to find out that the tragedy has affected also a lot of Kashmir-born people working in our organisation, with many of them loosing most of their families and their homes. The official death toll stands at over 80,000 but it is feared that without rapid intervention this figure could double in the next few weeks.
Like in any disaster, it is the children who are affected the most. Half of those killed were most likely children, and at least 1.6 million children have been left homeless, many of whom live in the most inaccessible and impoverished areas in the region.
According to the UN, the shortfall in aid for victims of the South Asian quake has made the relief situation worse than after last December's tsunami and UN emergency relief chief, Jan Egeland, stated that the organisation had never seen such a "logistical nightmare".
I was following Mr Egeland’s speech in Geneva. He said that the quake situation was becoming worse by the day and that most of the remote areas are still out of reach. And according to the current situation (at the moment I write), only $267 million had been pledged of the $1.064 billion promised, which would help the UN to fund the relief operations - and far less actually received in hard cash. He added: “This is not enough. We have never had this kind of logistical nightmare, ever. We thought the tsunami was the worst we could get. This is worse”.
The tsunami, which struck Southeast Asia on December 26 last year, killed more than 200,000 people in the vicinity of the Indian Ocean. And while donations of money and assistance have been pouring into international aid agencies from governments and individuals in the wake of the tsunami, totalling more than $US 7 billion, this time it seems that the international community is not doing enough to help the earthquake victims in Kashmir. Why is that? Aren’t all people on our planet equal?
The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made several appeals for the global relief effort to be increased to help the three million people made homeless by the quake, which are now facing the fierce Himalayan winter without shelter.
Some of the helicopters flying aid to the Pakistani earthquake victims could be grounded in a week by a cash crisis, United Nations officials have warned. The air aid and other relief measures will have to be scaled back unless donors send more cash, and send it fast.
I wish to quote the UN emergency coordinator Jan Vandemoortele, who stated: "Frankly, I don't know how to say this any more clearly in plain English. It's now or never. We will not have a second chance. Progress is being made. However people in the valleys remain unreached, the terrain is making it a logistical nightmare to sustain the support. The scarcest commodity at this time is time. The weather is against us, winter is closing in. We have to quicken the pace and we have to scale up the action on the ground".
In an interview with The BBC, the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf called the amount of aid pledged so far "totally inadequate". He mentioned that so far about $620 million (at the time of the interview) had been promised but that Pakistan needed about $5 billion to rebuild the totally devastated areas.
So, let’s analyse the contributions that have been made so far. I am sure that the public will be shocked that so many rich governments have given so little.
In the first place, I would like to mention that India, Pakistan's long-time bitter rival, had offered $US25 million cash aid, in addition to the humanitarian and logistical aid that was offered immediately after the disaster. I also would like to say that the way the government of India has handled the disaster in a neighbouring country has gained much admiration.
Unfortunately, so far, the UN has received just over 20 per cent of the funds it needs for the six-month emergency period. Only four countries - Sweden, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Denmark - have so far given more than what Oxfam terms "their fair share", a calculation based on the relative size of the country's economy.
Also according to the Oxfam figures, governments that have given less than one-fifth of their fair share include Japan (17 per cent of its share), Germany (14 per cent), the US (9 per cent) and Italy (7 per cent).
Britain, with pledges so far of $US17.5 million, is judged to have met 80 per cent of its share.
Seven governments of rich countries have so far contributed very little to the UN appeal.
They were named as Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Greece, Portugal and Spain. Belgium, however, denied it had given nothing, and said it was releasing a further $US1 million for the aid effort, bringing its total contribution to $US3 million. Spain said it was sending 370 troops to assist with the humanitarian relief.
Most of the Gulf States - that include Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, have made generous financial promises in support of the efforts to help the earthquake victims in the affected areas.
The UAE has pledged US$ 100 million, but it is not only cash contributions that matter in the wake of the disaster. The UAE government has set up a 100-bed field hospital in Balakot, which is being run jointly by the UAE armed forces, doctors and other paramedic staff. The hospital has so far treated hundreds of injured people. On his recent visit to the hospital, the Pakistani President Musharraf expressed gratitude to the people of the UAE for their contribution to the quake- affected people.
I wish to call on all countries of the international community not to ignore the appeals of these helpless victims, the UN and the rest of the world’s humanitarian organisations, and donate their fair share in order to prevent a real humanitarian catastrophe. Time is running out, the weather conditions in the affected area are getting worse by the day and three million people there are without shelter, food or clean water, simply left to the mercy of Mother Nature. As Mr. Vandemoortele already said: “It’s now or never”