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Helicopter lifeline under threat in earthquake zone

More than three weeks after the devastating earthquake that has claimed at least 58,000 lives, helicopters remain a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of survivors in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

More than three weeks after the devastating earthquake that has claimed at least 58,000 lives, helicopters remain a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of survivors in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

This story was taken from the website of the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

As an expectant crowd gathers below, hovering overhead, Captain Leonid Toderenciuc, a seasoned pilot for WFP delicately positions his MI-8 helicopter to land in the mountain village of Nardajjan, deep inside Pakistan’s quake-devastated Jhelum Valley.

More than three weeks after the devastating regional quake that has claimed at least 58,000 lives, the helicopters remain a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of survivors.

“This is a very difficult pass to navigate. We have to be careful, given the terrain and surrounding mountains,” the Moldovan pilot said on Tuesday.

Critical missions

Toderenciuc is all too aware how critical such missions are. This village only received its first delivery of relief supplies on Sunday and there are many more remote communities like it.

Outside, villagers, many who haven’t eaten properly in weeks, press forward to receive them.

According to David Vadachkoria, a programme officer for WFP, distribution efforts were proceeding well but of course much more was needed.

Watchful eye

It’s tragic that when we have the expertise and technical capacity to ensure that most survivors get their basic food needs through winter, we cannot reach them because of lack of funding

Amir Abdulla, WFP's Regional Director for the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe

On this visit, wheat flour, vegetable oil and high-energy biscuits were being distributed to almost 540 households in the area, including Nardajjan, under the watchful eye of the Pakistani military.

“Thank you, thank you,” an elderly man said, mustering the few words of English he knew while standing in an orderly queue that had established itself close to the chopper.

For many people living in remote areas of quake-affected northern Pakistan, such helicopters provide the only source of essential food and relief supplies to their communities.

Half a million

To date, WFP has been able to deliver nearly 4,500 metric tons of food, using planes, helicopters, trucks, rafts and pack mules to nearly half a million people affected.

However, many roads into the quake-devastated Neelum and Jhelum valleys remain blocked or have collapsed altogether, making relief efforts into the area all but impossible.

Flying overland, 40 km east of Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the pilot spied one village that had written its appeal out in large white stones in a field, clearly visible from the helicopter window. “Help us,” it read.

Devastating quake

It is extremely worrying that the international community has so far failed to come up with an adequate response to the crisis

Amir Abdulla, WFP's Regional Director for the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe

More than 79,000 people were injured following the devastating 8 October quake, which ripped through Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Although this is the country’s worst natural disaster in over a hundred years, this lifeline may well be cut unless further funds are made available now.

According to a statement by WFP on Monday, the UN food aid and logistic agency had received less than 10 percent of the US$100 million it needed to deploy 30 transport helicopters to the quake-affected area, bringing aid and relief to hundreds, if not thousands, of remote villages and hamlets scattered throughout the affected area.

"Tragic"

“It’s tragic that when we have the expertise and technical capacity to ensure that most survivors get their basic food needs through winter, we cannot reach them because of lack of funding,” said Amir Abdulla, WFP regional director for the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

“And it is extremely worrying that the international community – which was so generous after the Indian Ocean tsunami – has so far failed to come up with an adequate response to the crisis.”

Charged with organising the joint logistics for most humanitarian agencies working in the 28,000 square kilometre area, WFP needs close to US$17 million a month to mobilise and operate this air fleet, but has received only US$9.8 million so far.

Time running out

With temperatures dropping every day, the United Nations has warned of a second wave of deaths unless more is done now. And with winter fast approaching, it’s clear time is running out.

In an interview with IRIN in late October, Andrew MacLeod, chief of operations for the UN Emergency Coordination Centre in Islamabad, called the use of helicopters vital, saying: “We still need more.”

MI-26

Oil-producing countries could do the quake victims a great favour by providing us with fuel

Amer Daoudi, WFP’s Chief of Logistics

But extending such a lifeline doesn’t come cheap. The MI-26, one of the largest helicopters in the world with a capacity to ferry 20 metric tons of supplies a trip, costs approximately US$11,000 per hour to keep airborne, excluding support costs.

WFP needs to operate five of these giant Russian-made crafts, as well as 22 smaller MI-8, each of which has a capacity of three metric tons of supplies, Monday’s agency statement read.

To date, WFP has deployed only eight MI-8s and only one MI-26 and has confirmed only an additional four MI-8s and one MI-26.

Operation under threat

“As things stand, this operation could well shut down in less than two weeks,” Amer Daoudi, WFP’s chief of logistics, warned, calling on oil-producing countries to donate free fuel as an in-kind contribution to the quake relief effort.

“With rising oil prices, the aviation fuel cost for a full operation for one month amounts to US$2.5 million. Oil-producing countries and particularly those close to Pakistan, could do the quake victims a great favour by providing us with fuel,” he added.

Lack of funds

It’s not just WFP that is running short of funds for helicopter relief operations in the quake zone.

"The Pakistani government is also facing the same shortage of funds for relief operations and the pledged money has not been transferred so far," Colonel Baseer Malik, a spokesman for the Federal Relief Commission (FRC) – the main government body coordinating quake relief - said.

Pakistan has more than 30 helicopters deployed in the quake zone.

Cries of pain

Meanwhile, back in Nardajjan, as the last box of relief items is offloaded, the seriously ill and injured are ferried back for treatment. Suffering from acute appendicitis, a man requires immediate medical attention, available only in Muzaffarabad where a string of field hospitals have been established.

His cries of pain are drowned out by the roar of the helicopter’s rotor, but he's comforted by the knowledge that without this air ambulance he would probably be a dead man.

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