Managing the Mirpur Earthquake

An abridged version of this blog post appears in Pakistan Observer as the Op-Ed titled Mirpur Relief Ordeal (https://pakobserver.net/index.php/2019/10/01/mirpur-relief-ordeal/)

A small part of Pakistan’s northern areas continues to cope with the devastation wrought by a shallow 5.8 earthquake centered near the city of Mirpur, a few miles north of Jhelum, in Azad Kashmir. In the past several days, rescue workers have been digging through the rubble of collapsed buildings, looking for survivors. Many people have been rendered shelterless by the quake. Hospitals have been overburdened. Many seriously injured people are still being treated. The authorities and aid agencies continue to struggle to reach affected areas over damaged transportation routes. Many aftershocks posed further threat.

All this time, reports have been rather unclear and contradictory about the state of the disaster zone, which encompasses mainly Mirpur and Jhelum districts. The final official death toll is 40. Reports of injuries have varied but agree that around 700 people were injured. Many reports now say it was 746. As for the damage, government reports said that less five hundred houses suffered major damage in the earthquake. But NGOs who visited the area said that 1,600 houses were destroyed and 7,000 others were damaged. It also seems that authorities have yet to assess the full scope of the disaster.

Recurrent aftershocks have continued to terrorize people. On Thursday, a magnitude 4.7 struck the area around Mirpur at a depth of ten kilometers, practically causing a second calamity. According to officials, 67 people were injured by this quake. The number of homeless also increased. Fortunately, it seems nobody was killed.

Still, this is a serious situation. The large number of wounded from the small tremor could have been entirely avoided. The earthquake of 24 September was a sudden disaster, striking out of nowhere and catching people by surprise. But afterwards, people were surrounded by damaged structures and knew that aftershocks are going to happen. The people who were injured yesterday would all have been fine had they not been around those structures that gave way. Reasons for why they were there could be the inability to identify hazardous buildings, to communicate to the people in the disaster area, and to get people into proper shelters.

Shelter is a vital need, especially since the seismic activity has coincided with a time of bad weather and the onslaught of severe winter. I witnessed huge rainshowers in Islamabad for a few days, which is worrying, because if the rain also occurred in Azad Kashmir, it would be very bad for the earthquake-affected area. Plus, as it is nearly the beginning of October, it must be very cold in Kashmir. As I learned on the news, heavy rain has indeed been occurring in the quake-struck area. This is creating miserable conditions for the scores of people who have no shelter and must spend the night outside.

Except for a few areas in which most buildings were destroyed, there is plenty of shelter for people but availing them is dangerous because of the building damage and the aftershocks. Even now, aftershocks are still occurring at a robust rate. Any moment, another one could add to the casualty rate. Remember that even if buildings themselves do not come down, when they are affected by earthquakes, small pieces of debris can detach from the ceilings and walls and fall on people. They can be heavy enough to break people’s backs if dropped on the head, so even the thickest helmet cannot protect them. All sorts of other severe injuries can happen if they fall on people in a lying-down position. It is possible that in a building damaged by the Mirpur earthquake, an individual piece of debris could drop at any moment anywhere.

As many people languish in the open air and are being rained upon, there has to be a way to get people into safe shelter. One way is to identify buildings that have a lot of room and are guaranteed to remain undamaged because they are sturdy and suffered no damage already. Even if there are only a few such buildings, the people of the affected area can concentrate in them. We can have a lot of people living together in a small space for a short period of time, even dozens of people huddled in a small room, until the aftershock risk is no more or better shelter has been delivered. The whole women’s Purdah issue may be one obstacle, but otherwise, in times of crisis, people have to do what they would not do on a regular basis.

Government reports have claimed that engineers are being sent to assess the safety of buildings. Hopefully, they are doing a good job, because the earthquake-affected people rely on them for ascertaining which buildings are safe to go into. But otherwise, there are ways for the people to make themselves safe.

Buildings are meant to protect you from the outside, but if they fall down or break into pieces, they become a danger to you. People can place small structures in their houses which will shield them from falling rubble. Then, they can sleep under the small, makeshift roof and otherwise spend their indoors time. Surely, such structures would have protected the 67 people from being injured in the biggest aftershock.

Relief goods, including shelter like tents, are being delivered across Azad Kashmir but the people cannot just rely on them. They have the ability to be safe and make their situation better using what they already have with them, as long as they know what to do and can organize themselves. So if the authorities cannot get the tents in on time, they should find a way to get safe and adequate shelter for themselves. They may be able to continue living in hazardous buildings if they make innovative arrangement. The people in the earthquake zone can decide for themselves what to do by observing their circumstances.

It is always best that people are thoroughly versed in the disaster risks they live under and what to do. But if a disaster strikes and they lack the necessary knowledge, communication with them becomes vital. We should disseminate information to the people of the earthquake-affected zone about what they can do to help themselves and others. Connectivity in the area has been greatly hampered by the effects of the earthquake, with not only the movement of people and things being blocked but means of telecommunication being down, such as cell towers. But the movement of information is not that difficult. For example, public announcement systems from a mosque minaret can be used and if a minaret is down, loud speakers from tree tops can function just as well. Fliers can be dropped from aircraft. The good thing about information is that it can be delivered in an economical manner. The packaging of the relief goods being distributed to the area can have instructions written on them about what people should do and what they should watch out for.

Besides shelter, people are also in great need of potable water. The earthquake damaged the water systems in the area it struck, mixing water with dirt, so the people need to have clean water delivered to them. Some of them, reportedly, have been drinking from unsafe water sources. Delivering water to them is a challenge because of the damage to the transportation routes. Perhaps use could be made of the rain that is currently happening in the region? People would be able to get clean, potable water if they manage to collect rainwater. People in such situation do not only need water for drinking but for medical use also. It is okay for people to drink water that has relatively high level of dirtiness, because the digestive system is made to withstand contamination. But water that is for washing out wounds or washing medical equipment has to be very clean.

The inability to move people and goods around is possibly the main issue that the affected area struck now faces. Images from the disaster zone show roads sustaining massive damage. Some are torn wide apart and have cracks big enough for vehicles to fall into. Many roads have been damaged and destroyed, as have a few bridges. The Pakistan Army is diligently taking up the task of restoring road networks. This type of work is something armies are well suited to. War and military operations usually require the need for extensive transportation over terrain which was not developed for it and terrain which saw destruction of transportation networks. Army personnel therefore have to be good at repairing paths and constructing makeshift paths in a very short period of time. These skills are essential in responding to an earthquake. The same is true for a wide variety of other military skills.

Soldiers and army engineers heading to the affected area will produce enormous results, but much further benefit could be obtained if the local people themselves got involved in the huge amount of work needed for the earthquake relief. Local communities represent a lot of manpower, manpower equivalent to the amount of help needed. It is best that the people affected by the quake be organized in an effective manner, called CBDRM, Community-Based Disaster Risk Management, and use their local resources to manage the aftermath of the quake. CBDRM usually requires preparation to be ready for any disaster that may strike. Implementing it spontaneously when a disaster has already struck will be difficult, but let us try it right now in Mirpur.

Concerning the roads, there are some educational videos detailing how to construct makeshift transportation routes. One is a documentary that was made by the US Army during World War 2 and is now a YouTube video called How It’s Made: WW2 Military Roads, found on the YouTube Channel DocumentaryTube. Its description of soldiers building temporary routes from raw materials found around them may, if watched now, serve us even in relief of the earthquake-affected area around Mirpur.

In an odd twist of fate, the calamity in Mirpur is a crisis not only for Pakistan but also for Britain. A lot of people from Mirpur migrated to Britain and many later returned. That means that a lot of people in Britain have ties to Mirpur and a lot of people in Mirpur have dual British-Pakistani nationality. This should create an incentive for Britain to get involved in the earthquake response. We should ask the British government to do so. Also, the concept of CBDRM can even be extended across national lines. Remittances have developed Mirpur a lot over the decades and now, in this time of crisis, expats should spring into action and get involved in sending aid to the relief operations.

When a sudden crisis like this breaks out, people are best able to respond if they are ready for this beforehand and already know what actions they are supposed to take. Innovation is something that usually takes time. But when necessity demands it, we must always try and see if it is something that can be done on the spot. Right now, as the crisis is ongoing, people should develop new approaches and put them into action as they see fit based upon the circumstances.

After the massive 2005 earthquake calamity in Kashmir, Pakistan was supposed to improve its disaster risk reduction capacity. The endeavour is ongoing process. The Many complain that the government could have done more. PPLDM was founded to promote innovative, people-led disaster risk management.

Speedy communication is vital. All those who are reading this should share it and spread its advice. The people of Mirpur and Jhelum need help right now. Guidance has to be given to them, the emergency responders, and all who can play a part.
Media coverage of the crisis is one of the areas which we need to improve upon. Comprehensive news is hard to find. Unless people know all about the situation in the earthquake zone, how can they come up with the right ideas? We need more reporters heading to Mirpur and Jhelum and thoroughly documenting the situation on the ground. Access to telecommunication must also be given to the people within the disaster zone as it will help them know what to do. Transparency of news regarding disaster is the first step in disaster management. Glossing over is criminal and should be treated as such by not only national but also international law.

As Pakistan engages in disaster relief, let us not forget the people of Indian-occupied Kashmir, who were likely in the path of the earthquake but whose current situation cannot even be ascertained because of the blackout imposed on their homeland. It is time for Imran Khan and other powers that be to speak up about this and bring the issue to international attention.

When all of this is over, let us make our management of the earthquake in Azad Kashmir the test of how we are to determine the course of Pakistan’s future disaster management. In the run up to our National Resilience Day that falls on October 8, Mirpur earthquake relief can be showcased as a model of how far we have come since the massive earthquake struck Kashmir on October 8, 2005.

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