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 CNS Story:

PAKISTAN-CHALLENGES Sep-16-2010 (860 words) xxxi

Aid workers worry about what lies ahead for northern Pakistan

By Chris Herlinger
Catholic News Service

BALAKOT, Pakistan (CNS) -- In a small rural home that had been turned into a temporary, makeshift medical examining room, the telltale symptoms of childhood malnutrition were evident: thinner-than-usual bodies, darkened eyes, stunting.

So were skin and eye infections and complaints of ongoing diarrhea -- the maladies common to children and their families coping with a new disaster on top of the pre-existing problems of poverty, sub-par medical care and finding enough to eat.

"They're all cross-cutting themes," said Dr. Qamar Zaman, a medical coordinator for the humanitarian agency Church World Service, which has provided medical assistance to survivors of the recent floods in northern Pakistan. "These people don't have anything left."

Zaman and others responding to the floods are worried about what lies ahead in regions such as northern Pakistan which were already neglected before the onset of weeks of flooding that, according to the United Nations, have killed close to 2,000 people throughout the country and left some 10 million homeless.

Now residents of northern Pakistan -- still recovering from a devastating 2005 earthquake -- must take care of serious humanitarian challenges that are likely to grow more intense in coming weeks and months as this region of high mountains, steep valleys and isolated villages prepares for the approaching winter.

Aside from the ongoing concerns of feeding and treating hungry people who suffered from malnutrition and other serious medical conditions even before the floods, there are the worries of providing shelter. While the waters in North-West Frontier province have since receded, the full force of floods that hit the area beginning in late July washed away about 200,000 homes.

In mid-September, as survivors continued the task of trying to figure out what to do, the swift and muddy waters of the Indus River still bore the evidence of destruction -- logs and other loose debris from destroyed structures could be seen swiftly moving downstream.

Farm laborer Noor Paras, 72, his home severely damaged from the waters of the Indus, said he and family and neighbors are praying "that God will protect us" as they continue the task of cleaning up and repairing damaged property.

The quiet efforts of neighbors and villages trying to recover, often with some assistance from international groups, are not likely to get much attention. While there was a flurry of international media coverage of the disaster for several weeks, the "slow-rolling" flooding in other parts of the country and the continued effects of the floods in areas such as northern Pakistan are likely to remain out of sight or concern for much of the world, said Jack Byrne, Catholic Relief Services' country representative in Pakistan.

"People don't see it. They just don't see it," he said in an interview.

But for those affected, the disaster has "brought people to their knees," Byrne said. And while the mid-September celebration of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr might have brought some temporary respite for those like Paras, the farm laborer, "people will start to show their frustration and anger" if relief efforts are not stepped up, Byrne said.

CRS, the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency, has assisted almost 300,000 Pakistanis with shelter material and hygiene kits. Workers have taught more than 11,000 people about the risk of diseases that can arise in flood zones and the need for good hygiene.

The agency has developed programs to assist farmers who have lost crops and livestock. Seed vouchers, seed fairs and cash-for-work projects are being offered to farm families.

CRS workers plan to construct up to 15,000 transitional shelters for flood victims. The agency also is hiring residents to restore clean drinking water by rebuilding water supply systems. Four systems have been repaired and work is continuing on 17 others, CRS reported.

Yet responding in places like North-West Frontier province is never easy, given its isolation and sparse population density, not to mention its reputation as a noticeably insecure area, being the site of clashes between government forces and anti-government insurgents.

And the overall situation in Pakistan remains perilous, said experts who gathered in Islamabad in mid-September to examine some of the problems ahead, particularly issues related to food security.

At a Sept. 8 forum, Wolfgang Herbinger, Pakistan country director for the World Food Program, said it does not appear that Pakistan faces something as ominous as famine. But that does not minimize the challenges facing the country, Herbinger and others said.

Morosin Ernesto, head of humanitarian aid for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Pakistan, took note of a 2009 study by his organization which concluded that "food insecurity" -- problems related to Pakistan being able to feed itself -- had worsened in the years just prior to 2009.

About half of the population was already "food insecure" before the floods, he said.

"The floods," he said, "have indeed made the food-insecure areas much more insecure."

Noting that the Pakistani government has estimated that nearly a quarter of the country's current crop has been in destroyed in the floods, Ernesto warned: "The food crisis could expand into a long-term problem if farmers cannot get the seeds, draft animals and irrigation repairs they need for the fall."

- - -

CNS stringer Chris Herlinger is a New York-based freelance journalist who was recently in Pakistan on assignment for the humanitarian agency Church World Service.


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