The race against time is growing shorter in quake-ravaged areas of Pakistan, as freezing temperatures pose new challenges for relief workers delivering life-saving supplies to remote communities devastated by the quake, a senior United Nations official has said.
"The race against time is growing shorter and shorter as the weather closes in, with international aid efforts facing really daunting logistical problems in delivering assistance to those in need," Kevin Kennedy, the Director for Coordination and Response for the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said on Monday.
Because of the approaching winter, the priorities are now shelter, health and food, and gaining access to remote areas, he said.
Some 3.3 million people are estimated to be homeless, 38,000 dead, and 60,000 injured, he said, while cautioning that those figures could rise sharply once the UN gains access to all the remote areas affected by the October 8 disaster.
About one million people are expected to be 'severely affected', dependent solely on outside assistance for survival. So relief operations are still very much 'at the life-saving stage at this point', he added.
There are areas above Muzaffarabad that have not yet been accessed and as temperatures drop below freezing, the risk of hypothermia for people there increases.
So far, just 20,000 of the 300,000 winterised tents needed have been delivered. An additional 150,000 tents are en route and 100,000 have been pledged, but many of those are not winterised and will have to be altered, Kennedy said.
About 12,000 patients have been airlifted out so far but large areas remain unvisited and sanitation problems persist.
The World Food Programme has begun to access remote hillside towns using horse packs and mules and the UN Population Fund has moved medical units to the North West to accommodate babies being born since the crisis began.
On Sunday, with helicopters confined to the ground due to inclement weather, and many roads still blocked by landslides, WFP took to the hills with pack horses and mules loaded with emergency supplies. So far the agency has delivered food to some 440,000 people overall, but more than half a million are still in desperate need.
"We are extremely concerned about people in the most inaccessible areas," said WFP Emergency Coordinator Michael Jones. With the weather conditions easing somewhat, WFP said that it had resumed helicopter operations but that most were aimed at providing medical help and shelter.
The Rome-based agency has also been negotiating actively with more donkey and mule owners to persuade them to transport supplies to villages that have not had any outside food since the quake happened, now nine days ago.
Also in Muzaffarabad and Mansehra, the UN Population Fund┬áhas deployed six mobile medical service units and began providing emergency health assistance, including assisting obstetric emergencies and births.
Staffed by a female doctor and a nurse-midwife, the units are reaching about 250 patients a day. Among their first patients were three healthy deliveries and eight stillborn, due to the trauma.
"Much is being done but the situation remains very grave," said Kennedy. In its latest appeal, the UN has asked international donors for $ 56 million to provide food for one million people over six months.