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IRAN: Focus on Bam survivors four weeks after quake

BAM, 26 Jan 2004 (IRIN) - One month after the devastating earthquake that hit the Iranian city of Bam on 26 December, claiming the life of at least 42,000, most survivors are still living in tents close to their former houses, reluctant to move to emergency camps rapidly established with foreign assistance. A combination of a well-organised local response and speedy deployment of international resources and know-how has meant no reported outbreaks of communicable diseases, and fairly equitable emergency food distribution among the estimated 100,000 survivors. Sanitation and hygiene shortages remain.


Four weeks after the quake, food distribution is said to be proceeding well, however, some shortfalls remain. The Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) is the organisation in charge of food and non-food items distribution. The relief agency has divided Bam into 14 zones each run by a provincial branch of IRCS.

An IRCS official in the central zone told IRIN that they had no problems with food distribution and they were busy sending supplies into sub-zones to be further distributed by community leaders. They were said to be going tent-to-tent to provide people with food items and other assistance.

Although most of the quake survivors were receiving some food supplies, mainly canned items, those living in the back streets and on the outskirts of the city complained that they were not getting enough food. "During the first days after the quake we were getting food regularly, but now it is scanty and we are forgotten," a group of local people told IRIN in one of the suburbs.

Survivors like Mojgan and her children received some food supplies, but they haven't had bread, an essential part of their diet. "Although we have been given some canned food, we haven't seen bread for a week," she told IRIN.

Another angry resident told IRIN the food and non-food items they had been provided with were of poor quality. "We hear that a lot of things from all over the world are coming to Bam, but what we are provided with is only low-quality, Iranian-made goods. Where is all that stuff going?" she asked IRIN.

A UN official told IRIN that food hadn't been an issue until now, adding that rations were being distributed to families. "Food has been distributed and some basic items are being distributed regularly," Adbul Haq Amiri, head of the UN Coordination Centre in Bam, said, adding that things were pretty much under control. "Although there are some shortcomings, gaps and shortfalls," he admitted.

According to a recent UN emergency response report, some 100,000 food rations have been distributed so far and there are three mobile bakeries with a total daily output of 1.2 mt baking capacity and three permanent bakeries with 3.2 mt baking capacity. Also, 30 mt of bread baked in Kerman is distributed on a daily basis to the affected population of the blighted city. The state grain board has increased its number of bakeries to 20 units, each with a capacity of between 0.5 and 4 mt, with bread distributed within the city free of charge, according to the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

Those affected in outlying parts of Bam have complained of receiving only small amounts of assistance. "At the moment we are also hearing such complains, [from] people in the tents, particularly in the villages, there are reports that they have not been receiving adequate supplies whereas there has been an enormous focus on the city and people in the city. We have raised that with the authorities," Amiri said.

Marius de Gaay Fortman, WFP representative in Iran, told IRIN that the situation with regard to food remained positive. "The food situation is pretty good," he said. The WFP official added that people were now receiving food based on their rations cards. Concurring, Amiri noted that people were issued ration cards to ensure that everyone received adequate and proper amount of food items in an effort to avoid irregularities.

There have been many reports of individuals and whole families unaffected by the disaster that created about 100,000 homeless, flocking to Bam to take advantage of the emergency relief. "It is a very good opportunity to get a free tent, free food and other things. That's why they came here," a local resident told IRIN.

But Iranian officials were reluctant to condemn what some have called "freeloaders", pointing out that most of the surrounding villages and towns were dependent on Bam, which was the main economic and administrative hub within a 100km radius. "So they flooded the city as the total chain of distribution collapsed," a local official told IRIN.

In an effort to separate those in genuine need, the authorities have started a programme to identify those people who were not residents of Bam and then in coming weeks, reduce relief to such groups. "When the services are cut they will probably go [back] themselves," Mehdi Siyavoshi, head of the task force, the main government body responsible for relief operations in Bam, told IRIN.

According to WFP, Iranian police and intelligence services had already started identifying those people not entitled to assistance, whereas IRCS has decided to re-register survivors to get a more precise idea of those needing assistance.


Shortly after the quake, survivors were provided with some 100,000 tents. These still serve as the main form of shelter in and around Bam, despite plans to bring semi-permanent dwellings, recognised as important as the weather begins to warm up in a month or so. "Now the major problem is actually the medium term [shelter] situation of the people. The tents they are in now will not be very useful in a month when the sand storms and heat start," Amiri noted.

According to Siyavoshi, the authorities have ordered some 11,000 prefabricated houses. But estimated needs vary from 20,000 to 25,000 housing units. One prefab house of 50 to 60 sq m is estimated to cost from $3,000 to $3,600, so providing such a large number will be logistically difficult as well as very expensive. "It takes time and they are costly and they are not adequate amounts for the people," Amiri said.

Another problem is the removal of millions of metric tons of rubble from the city, as people are still reluctant to move to camps and largely remain on or close to demolished buildings. Here again, authorities will intervene to move families that refuse to leave their derelict houses. "The second concern is the removal of the rubble, which is 10 to 12 million metric tons of rubble, that's a big task," Siyavoshi said. He maintained that there were seven camps now but they were expanding them. "We are planning to have at least one camp in each zone," Siyavoshi said, adding that tents in those camps would eventually be replaced by prefab shelters.


"One month after the earthquake, epidemics of communicable diseases fortunately haven't been a problem up to now, the surveillance system is well established to monitor incidents of communicable diseases," Bijan Hamidi, a WHO medical officer, told IRIN in Bam. Hamidi ascertained that an effective partnership had been established between the Ministry of Health and other national and international organisations.

According to WHO, since the surveillance system had been established, disease prevalence had been more or less normal for the region at this time of year. "The trend during these two weeks has been stable and we don't expect this to be a major problem for the health system," Hamidi said, adding that they didn't expect to see any communicable disease epidemics before the climate changed.

But things are far from normal. One of the problems that remain is the shortage of latrines and showers. "The problem of shortage of latrines and showers still remains, but the activity is good and we see an increasing number of these facilities in the city," Hamidi noted, adding that when these hygiene facilities were more readily available, the risk of communicable diseases would be further decreased.

Although emergency latrines have been installed in most of the camps, people who are living not far from their collapsed houses and property told IRIN that the issue of latrines and showers was problematic. Some of them were going to the remains of the building to use them as toilets.

"There was a feeling that there was a potential for epidemics, but we are very fortunate here indeed as it is very dry. Any surface defecation that takes place is likely to dry up very quickly indeed, it desiccates," Ken Gibbs, a UNICEF team leader in Bam told IRIN. He added that because of this, the transmission of diseases had been reduced considerably. "The second thing that's working to our advantage just at this moment is the weather, the weather is cold," he maintained.

Hamidi of WHO said that the need for latrines might be as high as 7,000, especially if people did not go to emergency camps in large numbers and remained scattered around the city. Some other reports were estimating the number of emergency latrines necessary up to 12,000. This being the case, UNICEF is planning to provide around 7,000 of emergency latrines. "The plans are in place for those 7,000, there are ones which are being made and placed as we are speaking," Gibbs said.

Another shortfall is the lack of showers. Mohammad, 23, one of the survivors, told IRIN that he and his family hadn't taken a shower since the quake hit the city. Most of the other quake victims, excluding those living in well-established camps are more or less in the same situation. This being the case, Gibbs said that for the time being due to a lack of water supply with sufficient pressure, survivors couldn't have a conventional shower, but alternatives were being sought.

"We are producing washing facilities which provide complete privacy into which you take your bucket of warm water so that you can wash on a slab which will then drain and take the water back into the ground," he said, adding that such washing arrangements were being widely welcomed among the dirt encrusted survivors.

After having looked at the problems, Gibbs noted that they had established a good working relationship with the authorities. "I think that the approach and the attitude of the government of Iran have been singularly positive about what their role is and I see very good coordination in our sector," Gibbs said, adding, however, that there was a lot of work to do in the sector of water and sanitation, as well as hygiene in the longer term.


The ancient city of Bam had two primary sources of income, tourism and agriculture. As the 2000-year-old citadel that used to attract the tourists lies in ruins, agriculture appears to be the only viable income generator for the majority of the remaining population.

"The main concern for local farmers has been water resources. Over 80 percent of wells were destroyed," Reza Esmaeili, a government official at the Kerman governorship, told IRIN in Bam, adding that provincial agricultural organisations were working flat out to repair the damage. An official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told IRIN that experts on repairing wells were needed urgently especially with the farming season approaching.

According to assessments by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the earthquake seriously damaged the traditional irrigation infrastructure, as well as hundreds of wells. The FAO said that greenhouses, motor-pumps, agricultural machinery and 38 date conservation and refrigeration units had been seriously damaged. Dates are one of the region's principal food exports.

Date plantation owners, mostly small-scale farmers, were among the worst hit and families dependent on livestock production were also badly affected. According to the FAO, agriculture in Bam is mainly based on fruit production: dates (15, 000 ha), pistachios, citrus (7, 000 ha), vegetables and cereals with livestock also playing an important role - a total herd of 45, 000 large and 220, 000 small animals. Agriculture provides employment for over 25 percent of greater Bam's population of 230, 000 people.

Regarding the medium and long-term recovery in the agricultural sector, Fortman of WFP said that the top priority was to give the people their sources of income back."There should be quick action in case of the date plantations because the date trees during the summer, when there is no rain, should be irrigated every six to 10 days otherwise they die," he explained, adding that if this was taken care of at least one of the sources of income were secured.

In an effort to tackle the issue, FAO launched earlier this month an appeal for $2.5 million to assist farming families affected by the earthquake. Repairing irrigation systems to restore water supply for most affected date plantations, providing agricultural inputs and support for livestock farmers will be the main focus of FAO's emergency assistance.

"FAO's emergency interventions will assist the most-affected farmers to return to their fields and restart production. This assistance will contribute to ensure food security of the most vulnerable families hit by the disaster," Anne Bauer, FAO's Director of Emergency Operations and Rehabilitation Division, said in a statement.


The Bam earthquake has been one of the most devastating quakes in Iranian history but led to unprecedented cooperation between Tehran and the international community. Although emergency aid poured in from hundreds of donor countries, international relief organisations and charities, there is a real fear on the ground in Bam that the long term recovery picture will not be so positive.

Esmaeili of the Kerman governorship said: "Until now, the operations of the international NGOs have been very good and very comprehensive, but it shouldn't be stopped, it should be continued and in the very near future we may face some side problems, side outcomes of the problems we have now. We may need the consultation, advise and suggestions of the international organisations who have had enough experience on that," he said.

Meanwhile, Gibbs of UNICEF said that the response to the Bam quake because of the magnitude of the disaster was pretty good so far and they were getting quite a reasonably good flow of funds at the moment, which was for the first six months. "The question to all of the donors is 'what after that?' Are they going to give more money? Will they forget Bam?" he asked IRIN.

"I would request them [donors] to think not just about Bam but to think about the opportunities that Bam gives us to support the government here to make changes. For that we'll need long-term money," he ascertained.

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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