Several hours north into the flood zone of the Swat Valley, past the ruined buildings that stand like crippled giants, past the doorways that lead nowhere, men heave rocks out of the riverbed and stack them in orderly rows.
It looks impossible for a small group of thin-limbed workers to undo so much destruction with their bare hands. The biggest disaster in Pakistan's history inflicted its deadliest wrath in these northern reaches, as summer monsoons ripped down the valleys, devouring land, people and entire villages. The brown torrent killed almost 2,000 people, but that number hardly begins to encompass the months of misery that followed, those who died of malnutrition or disease as they fled the rising water.
Now, as winter blows into the mountains, an estimated seven million people remain without proper shelter. Villagers scrabble in the earth, trying to build homes that will keep them warm among the snow drifts.
It's a Herculean task, made harder by a lack of funding: donors gave only half of the initial amount requested by the United Nations and another major appeal seems likely in the coming weeks.
"If the situation remains like this, many people will die in the cold," says Khan Bahadur, 55. He stands beside his ruined house, watching young men from his village heaving boulders to remake the terraced lands that were washed away. Mr. Bahadur was among the lucky ones who received a temporary shelter, one of 49,000 such one-room structures distributed so far, but its corrugated tin walls won't do much to fend off the chill as snows become waist-deep. The bad weather is also expected to block the road that links these northern villages to the rest of the country. Jeeps fill the narrow tracks along the valley, bumper to bumper, hauling bags of flour and other supplies in a desperate race against winter.
Nobody has a firm grip on the scale of the disaster, even six months after the floods hit. The latest bulletin from the United Nations' co-ordinating body, published Dec. 23, describes a "dynamic situation" in a flood zone the size of England, with some people still waiting for waters to recede and others going home to an uncertain future.
Thousands took shelter in schools and other public buildings in the aftermath of the disaster; they now form a second wave of dislocation as they are evicted from those premises. Respiratory infections are rising, as people find themselves sleeping outdoors in the cold.
"Falling temperatures continue to compound the suffering of hundreds of thousands of families whose homes have been destroyed or badly damaged," the bulletin says.
Emergency planners had assumed they would be shifting gears by now, moving from immediate relief work to the rebuilding phase. Some parts of Pakistan are turning that corner, as the central Punjab regions and northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are taking on early recovery projects. But the flood waters lingered longer than expected on the clay plains of the southern Sindh province and many farmers have missed a full season of wheat planting.
"There are still parts of Sindh, even today, where you see water everywhere," said Benoit de Gryse, head of mission in Pakistan the aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières.
Aid experts are scrambling to find replacement crops, but it seems likely that millions of people will continue relying on handouts until the fall harvest. Instead of declining, the number of food-aid recipients is projected to grow by 500,000 this month.
"We had assumed the emergency phase would be over in December, but there's no way," said Mengesha Kebede, the Pakistan head of UN's High Commission for Refugees in Islamabad. "It just doesn't seem to end."
The crisis has stopped getting much attention in the international media, however, and even local Pakistani journalists have largely shifted their attention to other issues. Donations dried up in recent months, with little increase in the $976-million contributed in the initial aftermath. That's almost exactly 50 per cent of the UN's estimate of emergency needs and it won't begin to cover the costs of rebuilding. Some guesses have put the price tag at $10-billion, but it could easily climb higher.
The last time such a major disaster hit Pakistan, donors pledged $6-billion within a month of the 2005 earthquake and the money covered the new homes and repairs for an estimated three million people.
Such generosity now seems unlikely. Pakistan's foreign partners say their coffers were drained by recovery work in Haiti as well as the aftermath of the global recession. And Pakistan's government cannot afford new housing for so many people; Islamabad was already crippled by debts before the floods. Flood victims themselves often owe huge sums to landlords or crop buyers who gave loans against the value of future harvests; the floods ruined farms, but did not wash away the debts.
With so few resources, aid workers are focusing on the worst-affected districts and trying to build modest shelters, often just bamboo huts.
Even so, without extra funding, the UN estimates that 800,000 families whose houses were completely destroyed - not just damaged - won't get even the basic shelter offered by early recovery programs.
Those estimates are still cautious guesses because many people remain in so-called "unregistered" camps - informal settlements not recognized by the government as official locations of flood victims. Some observers say the disaster could mark a permanent shift in the country's population, away from rural areas and into the sprawling slums around major cities. The largest such influx has already started to affect Karachi, the southern metropolis, whose poor neighbourhoods lit up with violence in recent months.
But the floods also brought out the best in Pakistan's society, as private donors stepped into the gap left by the shortfall in foreign funding. Aid workers say they've seen many acts of kindness by local businessmen and charities. Some of those groups make Pakistan's international partners uncomfortable, because of their links with militancy, but more often it's a case of ordinary people muddling through a disaster without help from the outside.
The sheer scale of their task looks daunting. In Bahrain, at the north end of the Swat Valley, the floodwaters had so much strength that they carried along entire trees and, according to local lore, pushed a boulder the size of a house two kilometres downstream. Villagers now point to the huge rock in the middle of the river as a monument to the water's power.
That same thunderous force reshaped the terraced lands in the valley.
In two hours, Mohammed Aquil, 72, lost his house and the patch of land where his ancestors had lived for generations. Nothing remained except a broad stretch of river bed, strewn with boulders. It didn't scare him away, however; he returned and his relatives heaped rocks from the river onto the bank, building themselves a new plot of land.
"We were ruined, we would have died if the NGOs didn't help us," he said, with a nod to an Oxfam worker standing nearby. "The village disappeared. The mosque disappeared. All our belongings disappeared.
But God has saved our children, and our lives, and we will build this place again."
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