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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 December 2005, 00:17 GMT
Dilemma over new quake shelters

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Kashmiri earthquake survivors sit outside a tent
Tents offer little shelter from harsh weather in much of the quake zone
Fakhre Alam is one of Pakistan's most celebrated showbiz icons.

Since 8 October, he has been in the earthquake zone as a relief worker at the Chatta Batta tent village in North-West Frontier Province.

"Only a few days ago, a man with three children came up from one of the tents and pleaded with me to allow him to light a bonfire in his tent," he says.

There had been a few fire incidents in tent villages by that time and Alam had no option but to say no.

He thinks setting up tent villages was a bad idea.

We have to try and save these people from the cold
Showbiz icon Fakhre Alam

"He went back but I could hear him muttering, 'All my children will die'," Alam recalls.

At the time, he says, relief workers from the plains of Punjab and Sindh had no clue about the harsh winter weather in most of the quake zone.

"We have to try and save these people from the cold," he says.

"Otherwise, the human loss could be horrendous."

Some of the tents in the Chatta Batta tent village were "winterised" after the United Nations issued a DIY manual on how to add extra layering to canvas-and-parachute tents.

But this was mostly done in tent villages in valleys and low-altitude areas.

Slow response

Villagers living around mountain tops have so far preferred to stick to tried and tested materials and techniques.

Akhtar Abbassi, of Bambian in Neelam valley
Akhtar Abbassi has salvaged planks but has no nails or iron sheets

"Corrugated iron sheets, nails and hammer is all that we need," says Akhtar Abbassi, a resident of Bambian in the Neelam valley.

Like thousands of others, Akhtar was able to pull wooden planks out of the debris but does not have the iron sheets that can be used for a roof or tools to put the structure together.

And like most others, he is frustrated with the slow response of relief agencies - both public and private.

Relief commanders say they shifted their focus to shelter, especially in the high altitude areas, well over two weeks ago.

But they say their effort has been slowed down by the lack of response from private donors and NGOs.


One reason for this could be the private donors' obsession with prefabricated structures.

Manufacturers of prefab structures had moved into Pakistan within days of the 8 October earthquake, with many displaying their wares in exhibits set up in Lahore and Islamabad.

Companies have sprung up to manufacture prefab homes

Their prices range from about $1,200 (680) for a single-room house to upwards of $18,000 (10,250) for double-storey buildings suitable for hospitals or schools.

Something new for a country that prefers to build with bricks and concrete, the relatively low price of these structures attracted many donors interested in contributing a form of shelter.

It also attracted entrepreneurs who were convinced that the need for nearly 500,000 homes and government buildings could spawn a new industry in the country.

Some of the country's top architects, such as Nayyar Ali Dada, spent hours with private donors and NGO representatives working out the design and strength of such structures.

Transport challenge

However, none of the major prefab companies are manufacturing locally.

The few new outfits that have sprung up locally can barely produce 100 single-room houses per month.

Architect Nayyar Ali Dada works on prefab plans
Architect Nayyar Ali Dada is among those to design the new prefabs

With the nearest mass production facility located in Turkey, no foreign manufacturer can provide enough in time for those needing to out-race the Himalayan winter.

Even if enough were available, it would be next to impossible to transport these 400kg structures to high-altitude areas - many still without roads passable even by jeep.

It took private donors time to realise these limitations on prefab housing.

Besides, before placing their orders most of them were forced to wait for the government to announce its policy on reconstruction, which came in the last week of November.

By the time they found out that the government had no intention of regulating private housing, prefabrication had ruled itself out as a viable immediate response to the shelter issue.

Many private donors have since turned to buying iron sheets and nails, most of which are only just beginning to reach the affected areas.

Only time can now tell how much this desire to do more rather than the obvious is going to end up costing the affected people in high-altitude areas.

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