Foreign aid agencies seek access to Pakistan quake victims

Wed Oct 9, 2013 10:10pm IST

Survivors collect their belongings from the rubble of a mud house after it collapsed following an earthquake in the town of Awaran, southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, September 25, 2013. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

Survivors collect their belongings from the rubble of a mud house after it collapsed following an earthquake in the town of Awaran, southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, September 25, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Naseer Ahmed

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, daughter of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, adjusts her flower garlands as she campaigns for her mother during an election meeting at Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh April 22, 2014. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar

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NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistan must allow international aid agencies to work in its disaster-hit southwestern region where survivors of twin earthquakes two weeks ago still need help, relief groups said on Wednesday.

According to official figures, 376 people died and 200,000 had their lives disrupted when a 7.7 magnitude quake struck Baluchistan province on September 24 and a similar magnitude earthquake struck four days later. A senior official has put the death toll at 515.

Aid workers say several foreign agencies have been denied permission to work in the Awaran district, the epicentre of the disaster, where tens of thousands of people need aid.

"Since the first earthquake struck on 24 September, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has been in dialogue with different officials with a view to getting teams and supplies into the Awaran area. Yet the Government of Pakistan has still not granted us authorisation to enter," Chris Lockyear, MSF's Operations Manager, said in a statement.

"It is too long for people to have to wait for humanitarian aid. It's crucial that the authorities allow impartial humanitarian assistance into the Awaran area in order to respond to any unmet needs."

Baluchistan is one of the poorest provinces in Pakistan and has some of the worst health indicators in the country. Malnutrition rates are high, making children especially vulnerable to diseases like malaria, diarrhoea, dysentery and typhoid.

GAPS IN AID

The Pakistani government has told the international humanitarian community it does not need external assistance as it has the capacity and resources to respond adequately with the help of the military.

However, aid agencies already working in the area - where remote villages are scattered and roads have caved in - say there are gaps in the relief distributions.

"In a harsh landscape, there are limited opportunities for work. Most families earn a living rearing livestock on small family-run farms and many of their animals were killed," a statement by ActionAid Pakistan said.

"Our team found that communities were facing severe shortages of drinking water, food, shelter and medical assistance."

Baluchistan - a vast, lawless region bordering Afghanistan and Iran - is also home to separatist rebels and there are concerns that foreign aid workers could be attacked.

Since the disaster struck last week, there has been a spate of attacks on army and paramilitary troops, with rebels accusing the army of sending in troops under the guise of aid delivery.

Two soldiers delivering relief supplies were killed by a roadside bomb near Awaran, rockets fired by rebels have narrowly missed military helicopters carrying aid and there have been several attacks on relief convoys.

The government has allowed aid agencies already working in Awaran to operate, but new agencies have been denied access.

The United Nations says that while there has been no formal request for international aid, agencies such as the World Health Organization and the World Food Programme are on the ground, supporting relief efforts.

A U.N. official from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told Thomson Reuters Foundation that it had appealed to the government to allow relief supplies to be delivered to survivors.

"The U.N. continues to advocate to all parties to facilitate humanitarian access to people in need and ensure the safety of aid workers providing life-saving assistance in the earthquake-affected areas," said Humaira Mehboob, OCHA's public information officer in Islamabad.

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