The China Pak Economic Corridor, CPEC, is one of the six planned corridors that form part of Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Launched in 2013, the other five corridors include Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIMEC), China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC) China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC), China Mongolia Russia Economic Corridor, (CMREC) and New Eurasian Land Bridge (NELB).
The BRI vision is a paradigm shift in commerce. The pivot of high finance is shifting from the west to the east and the BRI is an embodiment of this revolution in the making. CPEC, BRI’s pilot project, has a comparative advantage over the other five corridors, which pass through more than two countries involving longer terrains and complex negotiations. CPEC is mere 3000 kilometer long (making it the shortest of the six corridors) that begins at China’s Kashgar in Xinjian and ends at Pakistan’s Gwadar at the Arabian Sea.
CPEC is the pivot of the new course Pakistan is taking to become a regional commercial hub. The collaborative priorities, as described in the November 2017 agreement between Pakistan’s minister for Planning, Development and Reform and his Chinese counterpart, earmark energy, transportation, IT networks, medical services, poverty alleviation, tourism, and rural development sectors.
A serious omission in CPEC priorities is China-Pak collaboration in disaster risk reduction. In an agreement titled “Long Term Plan for China Pak Economic Corridor, 2017-2030,” consisting of thirty eight pages and approximately seven and a half thousand words, disaster risk reduction is not mentioned even once. Despite the neglect, joint disaster risk reduction inevitably became a preoccupation of CPEC planners as the Pakistani and Chinese scientists from the National Institute of Oceanography and the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology, respectively, teamed up in early 2018 to study Gwadar’s seismic risk. Funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the expedition was necessitated by heightened seismic activity in the region, instead of being the outcome of a well thought out joint plan of disaster risk reduction R&D.
The regions of Pakistan and China constituting CPEC are known as disaster prone areas. Most of the higher than six MMI scale earthquakes in China since 1980 happened in Western China. According to the data from China Earthquake Network Center (CENC), since 1980, there have been 130 earthquakes between MMI 6 and 7, sixteen earthquakes between MMI 7 and 8, and two earthquakes higher than MMI 8 in China. Most of the earthquakes higher than MMI 6 took place in western China, consisting of Yunnan, Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, Xizang (Tibet) and Xinjiang. Western China is, therefore, an earthquake prone area.
Gwadar’s topography makes it vulnerable to the hazards of flooding, cyclones, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Gwadar lies on the head of a peninsula surrounded by ocean on three sides, which makes it vulnerable to tsunamis. When and if a tsunami happens, it would hit Gwadar straight on, which is the worst kind of tsunami impact for urban infrastructure.
Gwadar is located right next to the epicenter of the 1945 earthquake that devastated the region at MMI 8.1. The Makran Trench is where the Arabian plate (which contains the Arabian Peninsula) is sub-ducting under the Eurasian Plate at 4 centimeters per year. By not quaking for several decades, the Makran Trench is building up elastic energy. Sub-duction zones produce up thrust earthquakes, which are the most intense type of earthquakes, causing large tsunamis. It should be borne in mind that in the earthquake of 1945, only part of the Makran Trench ruptured, comprising eastern half under Pakistan, not the part under Iran. If the entire Makran Trench was to quake, the earthquake could be a magnitude 9.2, same size as the 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan, the most disaster resilient country in the world.
The Long Term Plan for China Pak Economic Corridor states that “The CPEC will greatly speed up the industrialization and urbanization process in Pakistan and help it grow into a highly inclusive, globally competitive and prosperous country capable of providing high-quality life to its citizen.” (from website.) Despite overwhelming need for disaster risk reduction in CPEC, in this vision of prosperity of Ahsan Iqbal, regional collaboration in disaster risk reduction does not once appear as a priority. In “Restraint of Natural and Geographical Factors,” Xinjiang’s “weak industrial base” is listed, “cost of construction and management of operations in difficult terrain” is listed, “energy, infrastructure and governance deficiency” is mentioned. DRR appears nowhere on the document as one of CPEC’s challenges.
The risk of extreme weather phenomena, including strong cyclones, is higher. As a consequence of earth’s crustal movement, earthquakes is a clear and present danger. The terrain CPEC is built on is disaster prone. Alongside these hazards, CPEC gives Pakistan an unprecedented opportunity of availing Chinese expertise in collaborative disaster risk reduction. Pakistan’s deficiencies in financial and technological resources can be compensated if China partners actively in managing potential and real disasters in CPEC. It is better for Pakistan to seek foreign collaboration in a well-planned manner than to leave it to developments that be.
Pakistan’s legislature needs to make relevant laws and government needs to sign treaties on controlling water pollution, solid waste pollution, noise pollution, livestock epidemic emergencies and transportation and food scarcity hazards. Disaster risk reduction along CPEC needs to be made a priority area of tripartite collaboration between China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the third major investor in CPEC. Collaboration in DRR technology, including early warning systems and remote sensing, is a dire need of CPEC – a project mainly consisting of infrastructure development for uninterrupted commerce. Not just the infrastructure, but the communities along the CPEC also need to be safeguarded against natural and man-made disasters through collaborative action on awareness, mitigation and management of disasters.
The vision of a University at Gwadar, laid out in the CPEC agreement, must be revisited to create an international center of excellence in disaster risk reduction and disaster management studies, harboring a climate change and earth sciences resource center, equipped with state of the art technology and online connectivity to other Universities in Pakistan with similar programs. Scientists from China, Eurasia, and the larger international community of disaster and climate scholars should be visiting faculty, conducting joint research and imparting knowledge to Pakistan.
CPEC needs to be built as a “model” of disaster risk reduction and the sooner Pakistan and China paid attention to the importance of this joint venture, the better CPEC will serve its purpose.
Zeenia Satti is CEO of Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management. She blogs at https://zeeniasatti.wordpress.com/.