One Year Later, Disaster Survivors in Pakistan and Guatemala Struggle On

Early October marks two painful anniversaries—the heavy rains and mudslides in southwestern Guatemala triggered by Tropical Storm Stan, and the earthquake that the World Bank characterizes as the most debilitating natural disaster in Pakistan’s history. They serve as reminders of the terrible toll of disasters and the extreme difficulty of recovering, particularly for communities that are either geographically remote or beset by deep poverty. In Pakistan, official statistics indicate that as many as 600,000 homes still need to be built or repaired across the quake zone. An Oxfam report says that as many as 1.8 million survivors will spend a second difficult winter in transitional shelters. Reconstruction of housing and infrastructure has been slow. Corruption and fraud have played a role, as has poor planning that led many survivors to receive promised compensation money very late and thus unable to start rebuilding during the short period of time when weather conditions were agreeable. Still, more than 370,000 families had received rebuilding funds by October 2006, and 30,000 builders have been trained in quake-proof techniques. Pakistan’s government says that 80 percent of needed new housing is to be constructed within three years, the remainder completed within another 2 years. Without doubt, the magnitude of the challenge is enormous. The aid effort has been massive. Over the past year, close to 1 million tents, 6.4 million blankets, 256,000 tons of food rations, and 2,000 tons of medicines were brought into the disaster area. More than 1.25 million children who were not vaccinated before the earthquake received shots against several diseases. Some 1,574 schools are to be built in 2006 and 2007, to begin to replace more than 6,000 schools destroyed. In Guatemala, about 1.5 million people were affected by the heavy rains of Stan. Some 670 people were confirmed dead, but hundreds more remain missing. A year later, at least 4,800 families are still living in temporary shelters made of canvas and plastic. The local Red Cross says 7,500 people live in tents, with the real number perhaps even twice as many. The construction of new housing nearby was halted when Guatemalan authorities realized that the new location was also prone to dangerous landslides. It has proven difficult to find available land elsewhere, and in desperation some people have returned to their old homes.

Stan hit a population already deeply impoverished. During the past 12 months, as many as 400,000 people have depended on food aid from the World Food Programme for their survival. Disaster preparedness is judged better now than it was before Stan, but still inadequate.