Snow falls on Pakistan's shelterless quake victims

In his tiny house in Pakistan’s Chitral District, Rustam Shah has over the past two weeks hosted three separate families who were made homeless by last month’s earthquake.

The magnitude 7.5 quake, its epicentre in neighbouring Afghanistan, struck on 26 October and at least 382 people are reported to have died across both countries, with around another 2,700 injured. Many residents of hard-hit districts like Chitral, in the border province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are still sleeping in tents, while nighttime temperatures have dropped to around freezing and snow has begun to fall.

People like Shah are opening their homes to provide families respite from the cold, if only for two or three nights. Shah said his three-room house had already been overcrowded with his family of eight people, but he wanted to extend hospitality to those less fortunate.

“I can see how desperate people are and I have felt we have no choice but to offer them protection,” he said over the phone. “We are fortunate our house has remained standing.”

Almost 100,000 houses, most of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, were either partially or completely destroyed, according to the Pakistani government's National Disaster Management Authority. The NDMA says it has distributed 47,054 tents and 79,857 blankets, as well as other emergency supplies like tarpaulins, food and water.

Many remain in need, and conditions are becoming worse with the onset of winter.

In the remote Bumboret valley in Chitral, snow covers the ground and temperatures have fallen to as low as minus seven degrees Celsius as dozens of people are sleeping in flimsy tents, according to Luke Rehmat, a leader in the minority ethnic Kalash community who described conditions as “extremely miserable".

Despite the worsening situation, the government has yet to allow many international non-governmental organisations to begin relief work in hard-hit areas. The quake struck three weeks after Pakistan imposed new restrictions on INGOs, requiring them to apply for a “No Objection Certificate” to expand their operations into different areas of the country than those they already operate in. But the process to obtain the certificate has proved cumbersome.

SEE: Bureaucracy blocks earthquake aid in Pakistan 

“We applied for permission to work in Chitral three weeks ago, but despite attempts to follow up we have heard nothing,” said an official with a large INGO, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid creating problems with the government.

“Basically it seems local groups, or those the government completely trusts, are being allowed in,” said the official. “We are unclear what the criterion is.”

Raza Iqbal of the NDMA said the interior ministry is responsible for authorising INGOs to work in quake-affected areas, but he did not know what the delay was.

An interior ministry official told IRIN that the certification process involves vetting INGOs to find out the specifics of their work, registering them under the new law, and obtaining work permits for them to operate in specific areas.

“We are processing them as fast as we can,” said the official, who asked not to be named as he did not have permission to speak to media.

A local official in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Shangla District told IRIN that security agencies are responsible for the delays.

“In theory, the government gives permission, but practically the military and intelligence has to clear them, and it appears they do not want these agencies in potentially sensitive areas,” he said, on condition of anonymity.

Shahnawaz Khan, of Plan International, said the organisation will begin relief work as soon as it receives permission. Other INGOs declined to speak on the record due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The Pakistan Red Crescent Society has been distributing basic shelter kits that allow people to build structures from prefabricated materials. These can be quickly put together and provide better shelters than tents, said Khalid bin Majeed, an RCS information officer. He said the initiative was necessary because the government programme to provide compensation to quake victims does not allow them to build shelters fast enough.

“Even if people have money in their hands, they cannot put together a house immediately,” he said. “It takes two or three months at the very least to build even a basic structure, and, with winter closing in, there is no time for this.”

Ahmed Shah, a Chitral resident said it is almost impossible to rebuild anyway because fuel shortages and destroyed roads make it hard to transport construction materials, while snowfall is making the situation worse.

“I received my cheque for point 2 million rupees (USD 1,872) a few days ago, but what can I do with it?” he said.

Authorities across the border in Afghanistan are facing similar challenges as winter closes in, and agencies struggle with limited resources, according to Abdelrahman Kalantary of the Afghanistan Red Crescent Society. He said more than 11,000 houses had been destroyed, most of them in remote areas that are hard to reach. Conflict between Taliban insurgents and pro-government forces is also making it hard for relief agencies to operate.

SEE: Afghan conflict and upcoming winter complicate earthquake relief

“The humanitarian organisations have tried to provide support to the affected communities, but security has remained a constraint to most of them,” Kalantary said.