Tearfund Fears Lengthy Humanitarian Crisis in Pakistan

( [email protected] ) Jun 05, 2009 01:04 PM EDT
The suffering of millions of displaced Pakistanis may last for many months, according to U.K. relief and development agency Tearfund.
Displaced children from Pakistani troubled Swat Valley queue for food in Shiekh Yasin camp in Mardan, Pakistan on Wednesday, June 3, 2009. The military offensive to expel the Taliban from Pakistan's Swat Valley could take another two months to complete, and troops may have to stay for a year to prevent militants from retaking control, commanders said Wednesday. (Photo: AP / Mohammad Sajjad)

The suffering of millions of displaced Pakistanis may last for many months, according to U.K. relief and development agency Tearfund.

As many as 3.4 million people are now reported to be vulnerable after being uprooted from their homes in the Swat Valley and neighboring areas of northern Pakistan. The majority off them left when the Pakistan Army began its offensive against Taliban militants last month.

Tearfund says that the scale of need should draw international attention and trigger a major humanitarian response to avoid prolonging the suffering.

“The needs are massively underserved and the world’s media attention is elsewhere,” said David Bainbridge, Tearfund’s Disaster Management Director.

“At present our response is a drop in the ocean," he lamented.

Noting that the delayed media attention to Sri Lanka had hindered the humanitarian response there, Bainbridge called the international community to help "avoid the same situation in Pakistan where limited access and media coverage [could] make this another forgotten crisis where the humanitarian needs of the displaced are inadequately provided for."

According to World Health Organization officials and local sources, some 2.9 million people are estimated to have fled from their homes in recent weeks. Over half a million people are living in camps while the rest are staying with extended families or friends who are mostly poor.

Another half a million people in the northwest have been displaced since last August.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has described the displacement of people in Pakistan as the largest and fastest anywhere in the world in recent years, placing it on a comparable scale to Rwanda in 1994.

The crisis comes at a key point in the region’s crop planting season and is likely to have a detrimental effect on food supplies this winter and into next year.

Concerns that this crisis could result in a protracted displacement are underlined by the uncertainty about the duration of the Pakistan Army operations in the region.

On Wednesday, Pakistani military officials said it may take two more months of fighting to completely expel the Taliban from the region and secure the area.

Also, further fighting in Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan southwest of the Swat Valley, could lead to further population movements as people fear becoming trapped in subsequent military attacks.

In what is seen as one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, Tearfund, working through local partner agency SSEWA-Pak, is providing food, water and tents for hundreds of families that have fled the conflict areas to stay in locations further south.

A major health crisis is also imminent.

Due to the summer heat, and with 15 camps set up by Pakistan’s government already filled to capacity in the last month, dehydration is now a major issue.

With little access to basic sanitation, there is a growing risk of waterborne diseases spreading. SSEWA-Pak is providing communal toilets, mobile medical clinics and kitchens as part of its core response.

Monsoon rains are expected in the coming weeks which are likely to exacerbate the situation.

Joining with other local organizations, SSEWA-Pak is establishing a new camp at Shivai Ada in Swabi District. This is one of three camps including another that is based in a rural school. Relief distributions include sacks of food, baby food, cooking utensils and water containers.

Ashraf Mall, Tearfund’s representative in Pakistan, says that while aid agencies are doing all they can to respond to the immediate need it remains overwhelming in scale.

“People urgently need food supplies, shelter and medicines,” he said.

“Tearfund’s appeal for urgent support will enable our partner relief teams to help more and more displaced families as their numbers grow daily with the conflict continuing. Their immediate needs are urgent and any amount that people can manage to give will directly help.”