OCTOBER 8, 2019: MIRPUR QUAKE DEMONSTRATES OUR LEVEL OF RESILIENCE

Today is 8 October, National Resilience Day in Pakistan. It is a day dedicated to promoting the disaster risk management in Pakistan and improving our collective capability to protect ourselves by competent handling of crises that occur. Inaugurated in 2015 originally as National Disaster Awareness Day, October 8 as the National Resilience Day marks the anniversary of what can be considered the worst ever natural disaster in Pakistan’s history, the Kashmir earthquake of 2005. It killed more than 80,000 people and left millions to face brutal suffering through the winter. The calamity also affected the entire nation. Pakistan was experiencing economic growth in the years up till that time, but the earthquake put a halt to it and Pakistan’s economic prospects took a hit. As a result, Pakistan was woken up to the vital need to safeguard itself against natural disasters. After October 8, 2005, we found that the nation’s disaster management capabilities were deficient and we resolved to change that.

Yet, we have not managed to come very far in this regard, as showcased by our response to disasters that have struck since. Imran Khan pledges to change this with his vision of a “Naya Pakistan”. He has only been in office for a year and there is no indication of fast progress yet. Making the nation capable of handling crises that arise from time to time should be one of his top priorities.

It is not just about being prepared for the risk of disaster and responding to disasters when they occur, it is also recovering after disaster. One of the most glaring shortfalls in Pakistan disaster management is the slowness and inadequacy of the recovery from the great 2005 earthquake in the northern areas, especially AJK. Even today, 14 years since the earthquake struck, recovery is still not considered complete. In a nutshell, the promises that governments have made to the quake affectees go unfulfilled, mostly in infrastructure. Some of it is not rebuilt fully and a lot of what was rebuilt is not as good as what was before the earthquake.

The lack of reconstruction is particularly stark when it comes to schooling. More than 2,800 schools were destroyed by the quake but only a few hundred have been rebuilt. Hospitals are another weakly restored area. While main highways are of international standard, many side roads and sewerage lines that were rebuilt are dilapidated. People rendered homeless by the quake have found it a huge challenge to get housed again. The government gave little compensation to rebuild houses and millions of rupees have been spent on building new government buildings that are not fully functional yet. New buildings in many areas have yet to be rebuilt.

The government’s management of the reconstruction and rehabilitation has shown poor results. Apparently, it began when the civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari came in, which was corrupt and did not do things as well as the previous military government. Even after he left office, things have not been easy. The Prime Minister of AJK has said today that the job is 90 percent finished, which is quite low for a passage of 14 years. The Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) is in charge of overseeing the rebuilding of the quake-hit region. It speaks of lack of funds.

To showcase our national resilience capacity on National Resilience Day, we have an opportunity in the recent Mirpur earthquake. It struck the southern part of AJK on September 24 and was followed by many aftershocks. Now that two weeks have passed since, we will evaluate the response to the crisis created by the earthquake, as well as how much the impact of the earthquake was mitigated by reforms supposed to have been put in place since the 2005 earthquake. In the time ahead, Pakistan will of course be able to work on the recovery, reconstruction, and rehabilitation and see how it goes.

It was a small earthquake, only magnitude 5.8 but with a very shallow focus. The death toll is now put at 40 people. However, information about the other kinds of effects are not very consistent. Some of our recent reports say that around 500 people are injured and others say as many as 800. The number of buildings destroyed, or “severely damaged”, however you want to put it, varies from 1,000 to 4,000. The government has just said it has completed survey of 95 percent of the earthquake damage. What we are sure is that damage is severe around the district of Mirpur. The quake may have affected a small area, but that area appears to be absolutely devastated.

Bringing things back to normal, including by repairing the massive damage incurred to buildings and roads, is going to take a long time. The emergency situation created by the earthquake lasted for many days, in which countless were in need of medical treatment, shelter from the rain and night, and essentials such as water. The crisis should have largely abated by now.

Indeed, some sources, including the president of AJK today, say that the rescue and relief operations for the quake victims have now concluded and all efforts have transitioned into the rehabilitation phase. Some normalcy has returned to the area. Schools were closed in the disaster zone for several days but they have now just been reopened. Of course, while some of the students returned to their old school buildings, others have to carry out their studies in tents. A very large number of people, probably hundreds of thousands, also have to live in tents because their homes were destroyed or rendered unsafe. The authorities say they have delivered thousands of tents to the area. Water delivery systems are largely yet to be restored. That means many quake affectees will still have to rely on water being delivered to them as aid.

Aftershocks have been part of the disaster. The biggest one, a magnitude 4.7 on 26 September, reportedly injured 67 people. The worst of them are likely over, but even just a few days ago, on 6 October, a small tremor in Mirpur caused the collapse of a two-story building, killing one person and leaving two others injured. These casualties were avoidable, because of knowledge of present danger. People could have stayed away from unsafe buildings. The building which collapsed two days ago, for example, was reportedly damaged in the September 24 quake. Why were there still people living there? Difficulty in identifying unsafe buildings and in finding people new shelter plays the main role in the further tragedies occurring post main quake. More aftershocks may yet occur.

People are ambiguous as to how the official response to the earthquake is to be judged. The people had to go through a lot of hardship and wait quite some time for enough aid to arrive. The government says that action was speedy and well-coordinated between all the different aid agencies. Of course, as usual, the Pakistani military led the charge and hosted speedy response, delivering much in the way of aid.

All in all, however, the response to the earthquake by the government may not be considered exemplary. The fact is that the September 24 earthquake is minor in intensity and extent and struck an area that is rather well-developed and easily accessible. Mirpur is not very far from Islamabad, after all, unlike the epicenter of the huge 2005 earthquake disaster which was in northern Kashmir. It was not really a huge challenge.

Compensation that will enable victims to get their live back on track has to be delivered or earmarked. The Information Miniter, Dr. Firdous Ashiq Awan (the one who gaffed while feeling the quake) said that 200,000 rupees were given as compensation for fully damaged houses, which numbered 1,000, and 50,000 rupees were given for partially damaged houses that numbered 3,500. These packages are considered by many to be inadequate. Many people, for instance, need to tear down their homes and have new and resilient ones built. Such a project can cost a lot more.

Money is going to be a major issue as Pakistan undertakes recovery from this quake, much like the 2005 quake. Many of Mirpur’s businesses and industries have been destroyed. Many vehicles have been destroyed. The roads opened up and swallowed them. In a place like Mirpur, the people will not have much to come by for themselves. State of Pakistan also seems to have trouble getting enough money for them. Imran Khan says he will go after all the corrupt officials, which means the latter will spend a lot of the money they stole on lawyers now. Can they cough up some for Mirpur?

Thankfully, Mirpur diaspora in Britain is a sizable number. Perhaps it can be mobilized to send money back to rebuild earthquake damaged lives.

Getting the area back to normal aside, we have an urgent priority of sheltering the earthquake affectees through the winter. Winter can get brutal in Kashmir. The tents that scores of people are huddled in will not do. New and firmer structures will have to be built and this will require major undertaking.

The recent Mirpur earthquake exhibited stark indicators that lessons from 2005 have not been implemented properly. For one thing, the government was supposed to enforce building codes so that the people of the northern areas would have buildings that could stand up to eve major earthquake. Secondly, not just buildings but road construction techniques in mountainous areas also had to factor in earthquake resilience. But in Mirpur, we had buildings fall by the wayside and roads split even though last month’s quake was comparatively mild. Pakistan’s engineering expertise will have to deploy techniques for making all mountainous roads earthquake resilient, there is more economic reason now that we are preparing our northern areas for income through tourism.

Now, a big aspect of Pakistan embarking on a quest for seismic-resistant infrastructure after the 2005 earthquake is that some of the work was already done for them by that very earthquake. Normally, you need to tear down the buildings that are already there, expending money and making occupants sacrifice their shelter, and then build new buildings in their place. If a catastrophic earthquake already struck, you just have to clear the rubble and start rebuilding, so recovery of the quake-affected areas offered ample opportunity for implementing building codes. But Mirpur and the rest of southern Azad Kashmir actually were not very badly affected in 2005. The earthquake affected mainly the northern parts of Kashmir and Khyber-Paktunkwha, so Mirpur kept most of its buildings intact. These include all the buildings that can’t be relied upon to remain intact in the event of a quake.

In general, while abiding by building codes was high on Pakistan’s agenda after 2005, efforts bore little fruit. Raja Arsalan Nusrat, the chief executive officer of the charity Muslim Hands, says that “Had building codes been implemented properly, public losses [from the Mirpur earthquake] could have been much lower”. If a puny 5.8 earthquake could cause such devastation, imagine what would happen if another mighty earthquake like the one of 2005 happened. The whole point of our National Resilience Day is that we must strive to make sure that a repeat of that earthquake will not result in a repeat of disaster of similar magnitude. Mirpur is just another reminder of how we are still far away from realizing this dream.

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