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Pakistan expects one million refugees

A MILLION refugees are expected to surge into Pakistan if the American assault on the Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan continues.

Three quarters of these are expected to hit the north west region near Peshawar, where humanitarian support is waiting. The remaining 250,000 are expected to cross into the Baluchistan region of south west Pakistan, two and a half hours' drive from the city of Quetta.

The area is arid, drought stricken and border towns like Chaman are little more than trading posts.

Refugee camp sites there have been selected by the Pakistan government with no input from Oxfam, which has limited access to the area.

This is a particularly unstable tribal region, straddling the border. The terrain is harsh, arid and unsustainable, with no natural water supply through the freezing winter, during which temperatures of -10¦C are not uncommon.

A drought programme for the region was already under way before September 11, with water being tanked in and bore holes sunk.

All expatriate Oxfam engineers were withdrawn from Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks in New York. When the US bombing of the country began, workers in Pakistan were pulled back into the cities amid security fears. As a result, work on the ground is often carried out by trained local people.

Oxfam emergencies technical adviser John Howard was set to visit the proposed refugee camp sites in Chaman on the Saturday before the bombing, but was told by UN advisers to leave the area.

Since then, Howard has been able to see two sites and identify their particular requirements. Despite this, security restrictions in the area have meant it will be difficult for expat staff to work in areas considered to be high risk.

Instead, some agencies will co-ordinate efforts from Quetta.

'Our engineers' presence may largely be through remote control due to sporadic site access, ' said Howard.

Oxfam has 40t of equipment in Quetta - including pumps, pipes and tanks - ready to be deployed for water supplies.

Underground water channels dug into mountain sides and known locally as karezes have been transporting water to the area for the last 500 years but have fallen into disuse. Water was extracted from them via access shafts.

One kareze near Chaman is more than 100 years old and extends 1.2km into the hillside, with a height of 1.2m and width of 800mm. The shafts, up to 80m deep, are expected to be rehabilitated to meet the needs of the refugees, although the work comes with its own risks.

One shaft was found to hold 135 rockets and five anti tank mines.

In the long term, local contractors will drill 300mm diameter boreholes up to 400m deep to tap local aquifers. Submersible pumps should then supply the camps and the 70,000 litre water storage and treatment tanks which have been constructed in Quetta. These tanks will provide 15 litres of clean water per person per day to cover all their needs, with one tap per 250 people.

The aim is to ensure no-one is more than 100m from a tap. Oxfam will also have to supply each family with 20 litres of kerosene a week as there is no firewood for fuel.

Special measures will be required to deal with refugee sanitation and personal hygiene, as four years of strict Taleban rule in Afghanistan has strengthened social taboos concerning personal privacy. As a result, aid workers have to ensure that toilets, changing and cleaning areas must be secure as women are not allowed to expose any part of their bodies to public view.

Also, refugees used to living in remote rural areas will have to be trained to latrines because they are unaccustomed to using toilets.

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