Navigating The Roads Of Quake-hit Kashmir
23 March 2006
Muzaffarabad: Road conditions are a daily challenge for the World Food Programme (WFP) food deliveries in Pakistan-administrated Kashmir. Claude- Andre Nadon, a Canadian mountain guide from the UN Office for Projects Services (UNOPS) went on a road assessment mission for the WFP with his colleague, a Pakistani mountain guide, Rehmat Ali.Today our main objective is to assess the two major road links for the relief community out of Muzaffarabad - the Neelum and the Jhelum roads. Before any trip, we always make sure that they pack their 4x4 truck with enough food, water, warm clothes and sleeping bags just in case another landslide or rock-fall blocks the road and they end up stranded for a few days. That is exactly what happened a few weeks ago to Saeed and Jawed, two of the 25 Hunza mountain guides working with us, doing assessments throughout the earthquake affected areas. They were working near Panjkot, in the Neelum valley, when, after three days of rain, major landslides erased parts of the road. They were stuck in Panjkot for five days. After every rainfall, the Neelum road becomes too dangerous to travel on. Even after the Pakistani army has cleared the road of major debris for the hundredth time since the earthquake, constant rock-falls pose a major threat. A heavily damaged vehicle on the side of the road, waiting to fall even lower towards the river, is a reminder of the dangers that threaten every traveller. Rock-falls Today traffic was not interrupted. Local buses and jeeps were speeding through, avoiding as best they could the rocks falling from higher up. People are in a hurry, because they know at any time the road could again be blocked for a few days or even weeks. Then they would have to carry food or other important items on their backs for long stretches. We stopped at Patyka, 20km out of Muzaffarabad, not wishing to travel any further into the Neelum valley. With many stories of accidents due to rock-falls or landslides, we do not want to push our luck. So we stopped at a roadside tea shop and got detailed information from people who have just travelled the entire length of the valley. We are looking for any information that might help the WFP and the other UN agencies to deliver their precious cargo. On a day like today, most of the distribution will be hampered by the poor conditions of the road. We then head back to Muzaffarabad and continue the assessments on the Jhelum road. 'No warning' So today, nothing to report. The rain has not set off any more landslides. Not yet anyway! The problem is that it can happen any time. Just a few days ago, the vehicle of one of our colleagues was hit by a giant rock on this same road. He was killed instantly. Since this tragic accident, guides from the UNOPS are all the more anxious when they travel on these roads. Rock-falls and landslides give no warning! Landslides are indeed a major worry at the moment. Road access is extremely bad in the earthquake area in particular in the Neelum and Jhelum Valley, where the UN Department for Security and Safety has in the last week logged more than 70 landslides. Mudslides usually occur after a few days of heavy rain. But rock- slides happen all the time. 'Kashmiris say they occur every year but this year is particularly bad, the landscape has been made fragile by the earthquake and the aftershocks continue to destabilise the slopes' explains a UN field security officer. Last week and several months after the tragic event of 8 October, an earthquake measuring 5.2 on the Richter Scale with its epicentre 20km north of Muzaffarabad shook the soil once more. But the worse may be still to come. 'Dangerous' Landslides are expected to occur with more frequency and severity, particularly following the snow melt in March and during the monsoon rains in July and August. According to the International Landslide Centre at the University of Durham and the Landslide Observatory at the University of Maryland, there will be an increased risk of slope failures during the monsoon season and many of these will be large scale and destructive. Two weeks ago, one small landslide alone resulted in 14 fatalities. 'The situation changes by the hour, it is difficult to always have a complete picture, the landslides are very dangerous,' says Mathieu Bastien, a mountain guide from the UNOPS, also conducting road assessment missions for the WFP around Muzaffarabad. It will take years to restore the roads, particularly the secondary and tertiary routes that link the most remote communities. The arterial roads will be cleared by the Pakistani Corps of Engineers but subject to recurrent slides. Without helicopters, assistance to the most remote places will be difficult or even impossible. 'Lifeline' WFP plans to assist about 670,000 people through food-for work, food for training and asset creation projects, in the most remote areas of Kashmir. The neediest of them will receive food aid until the next harvest in October and November 2006. WFP's helicopter operation, which has been a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people during the winter months, is running short of funds. The operation, with a reduced fleet, still needs $24m to sustain until the end of August when it is hoped that most of the agricultural inputs, tools and equipment for recovery will have been strategically positioned. 'Some people believe that if the helicopters stop tomorrow, we will just continue the deliveries by truck, this may not be practical in all instances. The road situation is just too dangerous and roads are often blocked,' says Aslam Khan, head of the WFP office in Muzaffarabad. When the roads are blocked, helicopters are the only way to deliver the volume of tools, the seeds, fertilisers and the construction material that people in the remote villages will need to resume their lives. 'Road conditions and helicopter availability will determine the speed of the rehabilitation process,' explains Michael Jones, the WFP country director. If people originating from the mountain communities are not assured of access to food and other essential items until the harvest in October, they will most certainly stay in tented camps. 'The cost of providing this assistance in camps will exceed three fold,' says Jones. 'And prolonging people's stay in the camps will also postpone return, recovery and reconstruction.'