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Quake survivors' new fear: Landslides

By Zein Basravi
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MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistani-controlled Kashmir (CNN) -- From the sky, the mountains in this part of Kashmir seem fragile. Loose soil and fractured rock precariously poised on steep slopes wait for rains and tremors to set them free.

On the ground survivors forced to leave camps are apprehensively returning to destroyed villages. Injured men, old women and small children can be found climbing over landslides, carrying everything they own, trudging up blocked roads for hours where cars can't go under skies helicopters no longer fly.

Eight months after the earthquake that struck Kashmir and southeast Asia, relief operations are being impaired by the threat of landslides.

Aid workers also say the forces of nature are compounding an aid squeeze created by cutbacks in relief operations.

While seasonal landslides are a common threat in northern Pakistan, last October's earthquake has made the terrain more susceptible to rains and tremors. As a result, this year's landslides are more widespread and more frequent, making dangerous terrain -- narrow roads with steep drops -- even worse.

"There is no doubt the earthquake has destabilized many of these mountainous areas and thereby increased the frequency ... of these landslides," said Brian Isbell, head of the United Nations Joint Logistics Center (UNJLC) based in Islamabad.

In coordination with other U.N. agencies, the UNJLC has been conducting landslide surveillance to help relief work in the region.

Rock falls and mounds of earth bigger than buses have been blocking roads and stalling recovery efforts. The migration of returnees from camps around the region has become a logistical nightmare, compounded by depleting resources.

Relief agencies are nervous about the implications for quake survivors as the monsoon season -- June to September -- gets under way. Such organizations are predicting tough times for unprepared survivors, many still living in tents, over the course of the next winter.

Relief operations cut back

Before landslides began forming their own roadblock, relief operations in the Kashmir quake zone were already facing budget cutbacks.

According to a UNJLC information bulletin dated April 19, 2006, relief agencies have been cutting back efforts across the region due to funding shortfalls and pressure from the Pakistani government to wrap up relief operations, as programs move toward recovery and rehabilitation.

As a result, fewer helicopters are in the air and fewer trucks and buses on the roads to offer free transport for earthquake survivors headed home.

The Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) -- an umbrella agency set up by the Pakistani government to oversee aid operations -- has been cutting funding to various programs to phase out relief operations.

Budget cuts have also forced the cancellation of a special reconnaissance program that used high-altitude mountaineers to support returnees and collect geographical information used to evaluate terrain in faraway places. The loss has effectively paralyzed much of the U.N.'s ability to monitor and assess landslide activity.

Additionally, helicopter capacity has also been reduced due to a lack of funding and while land travel is less expensive ongoing landslides are leaving relief agencies and area residents stranded.

"The whole recovery operation relies a lot on this effort, to clear its' crucial, crucial," said Olivier Dubois, a field coordinator with the International Committee of the Red Cross based in Muzaffarabad. "That's a condition to make sure the recovery phase can go on and also I would say the normal life of the population can take place."

Engineers with the Pakistani army are working to clear roads. Army and ERRA officials are quick to point out that the problem is nothing new to the area.

"It is a continuous process," said Maj. Farooq Nasir, an army spokesman based in Muzaffarabad. "The slide will keep coming down. It was this way before the earthquake as well, so we'll keep clearing it."

Nasir said that army engineers are stationed near areas known for landslides and that clearing operations begin as soon as an incident is reported. But bulldozing fallen earth is often a slow and tedious process, stranding people indefinitely. Roads can be blocked for several days and the unpredictable nature of the terrain means routes are unreliable from one day to the next.

Back on the ground, families are still waiting in camps in and around Muzaffarabad and throughout earthquake-affected areas. In many cases, reluctant returnees from Islamabad and Rawalpindi find themselves living in impromptu setups by the side of the road with no support, no transport home, no food or water and nowhere else to go.

"People appear like they want to go back, but reasons vary," said Mary Giudice, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in Mansehra. "In general they have been told that if they don't come back they will not get their compensation. Many express a fear of the mountains, lack of resources and infrastructure, a fear of shifting from the earthquake, a fear of another earthquake," she added.

"Here in Mansehra, we still receive aftershocks and bolt out of the building. In the mountains they are much stronger and still quite frightening."

A family sits in a truck awaiting a ride back to a village in Panjkot, Kashmir. The road was blocked by a landslide.

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