Interview with Andrew MacLeod, head of UN Emergency Coordination Centre

As donors met in Geneva and the UN increased its South Asia quake appeal to almost US $550 million on Wednesday, the chief of operations for the United Nations Emergency Coordination Centre in Pakistan, Andrew MacLeod, gave graphic accounts of how the relief shortfall is impacting on earthquake survivors. Fresh off a helicopter from the quake-devastated city of Muzaffarabad, he shared with IRIN some of the many challenges they now face.

QUESTION: Can you update us on what the situation on the ground is?

ANSWER: The situation on the ground is actually still quite complicated at the moment. We are starting to see aid beginning to flow through, but with the limited amount of donor funds we have at the moment, every agency is stretched to its financial limits. Hence, we’re not seeing the amount of aid coming that needs to come in.

Q: Logistically speaking, how are you working here?

A: Logistically, we have over the last three or four days made a complete logistics plan on how to get to items from point A to point B. It’s going to cost us about US $140 million just for the next six months; just for logistics issues. With 15,000 villages or hamlets spread out throughout the affected region, for each of those individual places, you need to figure out whether you get there by truck, by car, by donkey, by helicopter, what sort of helicopter, what the needs are, and what’s the cargo that needs to go there. Multiply that by 15,000 and you can see the enormously logistic problem actually boils down to information analysis.

Q: There have been a lot of media reports on the desperate need for more helicopters. Where are you with that now?

A: There are around 50 or 60 operational helicopters in Pakistan at the moment, about 100 total, that’s including the Pakistani military ones. We should be receiving some more helicopters shortly, a couple of big HI26s, and a small contingent of Chinook helicopters from the British. This is not enough helicopters by the way – we still need more.

Q: In terms of the challenges you face now, what are they and how are you addressing them?

A: The main challenge now in terms of getting relief in, generically speaking, is financial. In terms of priorities of the type of relief we need to get out, it’s still emergency shelter of different sorts and there aren’t enough tents in the world so we have to have innumerable options on shelter solutions.

Regarding food supply, it’s not a matter of dropping once. We need to be able to set up a food supply chain that will last throughout the winter. That’s enormously difficult.

Then there’s sanitation, not so much water, but sanitation. We need to build about 200,000 toilets.

Q: How is coordination on the ground?

A: Coordination on the ground is excellent. We have good cooperation from the Pakistani military and government. I’ve never seen an aid operation which has as much coordination and cooperation as this one has. However, particularly because of the financial constraints, it’s not making that much of an impact on the ground yet.

Q: With winter fast approaching, the issue of shelter is paramount. What’s happening on that front?

A: We have a number of attacks on that problem. One is a series of rapid response teams, which are highlighting small villages above certain altitudes that will be cut off earliest. They are going around in small groups, dropping small amounts of tents and supplies, which will hopefully last them the whole winter period.

The logistic plan I mentioned earlier incorporates starting high in the mountains and moving down lower as the snow line drops. But again, we’re not going to have enough. An HI26 helicopter costs $11,000 an hour to run, plus fuel.

Q: On the issue of displacement, are we seeing a lot of people moving?

A: We are seeing some people moving, but not a great amount. People have a natural connection to their own land and are very reluctant to leave. Plus it is a partially transitory population where winter comes, many of the higher villages are normally evacuated in the normal course of seasonal shifts. So it’s hard to tell to what extent shifts we are seeing are partly seasonal and partly because of the disaster.

But unambiguously there are people moving, there are people congregating into the main population centres, and we are looking together with the government and UNHCR [the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees] to build displaced persons camps there.

Q: Many people in outlying areas have still not received the assistance they need. How is the United Nations responding to those pockets of populations that have received no assistance to date and are not even on the map?

A: It’s a matter of calculating and prioritising, finding out where they are and getting the assessments done and moving out aid and relief. Again, we come back to the critical issue. We don’t have enough money.

You’ll see from the flash appeal it’s more than $550 million we’re asking for and only a $100 million of that is just for logistics. So far we have donor contributions of only $90 million. If we are over $400 million short, what are we supposed to do here? We’re nearly $450 million short. Most of the agencies have depleted their emergency reserves completely. No money, no tents. No money, no food.

Q: Can you describe the coping mechanisms of the people living in the affected area?

A: One of the things I am grateful to see is part of the flash appeal process is that the World Health Organization wants to bring in a number of doctors just doing psychological and stress counseling. Asking people what people’s coping mechanisms are like is like asking how someone in London reacts to a car crash. Everyone reacts differently.

Some people can handle stress well and some people can’t. So the mental coping mechanisms are different from person to person. The physical coping mechanisms depend – are they rural, are they urban? Are they from high in the mountains; are they from low in the mountains? Have they lost subsistence? Have they lost everything? You can’t really answer a general question like that.

Q: This is the worst earthquake in Pakistan’s history. Do you have any idea how long rehabilitation and reconstruction of the affected areas will take?

A: Years, absolutely years. There are some areas that you fly over – the longest stretch we measured being 6 km - of road that was completely destroyed, not because boulders fell onto it, but because the whole mountainside collapsed.

When we talk about roads being cut, we don’t necessarily mean blocked with rubble, we’re talking about whole sides of mountains falling away. This means the entire road infrastructure in some areas needs to be rebuilt and this is a mountainous, rugged, remote region, coming into winter. So it’s going to be minimum one year from today before some of those areas are rebuilt. And I would say many years, before the region fully recovers.

Q: The UN has warned that time is quickly slipping away and the window of opportunity is becoming smaller and smaller. With winter fast approaching, will we be able to reach all the survivors of this devastating disaster in time?

A: No. Not with the current level of donor support. Unless we get a massive injection of donor funds now, I can tell you confidently, there will be people who'll miss out.