What Pakistan Day Means in this Time of National Crisis

“We are going through fire: the sunshine has yet to come. But I have no doubt that with Unity, Faith and Discipline we will compare with any nation of the world. Are you prepared to undergo the fire? You must make up your minds now. We must sink individualism and petty jealousies and make up our minds to serve the people with honesty and faithfulness. We are passing through a period of fear, danger, and menace. We must have faith, unity and discipline.”

– Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Every 23 March, Pakistanis celebrate the anniversary of Lahore Resolution, when the idea of Pakistan entered the world. It is always a jubilant time marked by many celebrations, including, usually, a large military parade attended by thousands.

Unfortunately, 80 years after the Lahore Resolution, none of this has happened this Pakistan Day. Pakistan, along with the entire world, is battling a severe pandemic of a new disease known as COVID-19. It spreads from human to human, rendering every one of us a hazard and requiring people to forego close contact with other people. Therefore, all festivities have been cancelled and Pakistanis have had to spend Pakistan Day by themselves. Our soldiers who would usually be marching in the parade instead carry out the grim duty of patrolling the streets of major cities to make sure the movement of citizens is restricted.

This is not a normal time for us. We are facing an extraordinary situation and that requires us to adopt extraordinary measures. Not celebrating our national day the usual way is one of the sacrifices we have to make to overcome a threat facing us in this time. We have, of course, faced countless threats throughout Pakistan’s existence. This one is of an unusual nature but, nevertheless, we have to tackle it as we have tackled all other threats. We need to apply the spirit of Pakistan Day and the spirit of the founding fathers we celebrate to fighting this plague of virus, plus an equally severe plague of locusts.

It is a crisis that requires every Pakistani to play their part. Most of us simply have to stay home and be by ourselves to beat the virus, though this itself will likely be severely problematic for a nation of 200 million people, most of whom are poor. This is especially as the locust outbreak will make it impossible for most Pakistanis to stockpile on food for extended quarantine. What our nation needs to survive through this crisis is, first, that we figure out exactly what sort of measures will be needed or can serve as viable solutions and, second, that all people inhabiting Pakistan cooperate and resolve to carry out stringent action.

This can be done. Our national day, Pakistan Day, is a time that brings Pakistanis together in a show of national unity and fervor. If we can do that for celebrating our nationhood, we can do that for saving our nation. Now is more important than ever for all Pakistanis to get together, but not literally as we usually do on 23 March. We need to send out the message to every Pakistani that this virus must be fought and we must make sure they hear it. Our founding father, Quaid-e-Azam, gave us the message of “Unity, Faith, Discipline” to be our guiding principles. Unity, faith, and discipline are exactly what are needed to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

This 23 March is the time for Pakistanis to truly prove that they love this country by joining the fight against the virus. The entire population is always eager to display its patriotism. We hoist the Pakistani flag during national days and we get jubilant whenever Pakistan scores a major victory in the world of cricket. We should be even more eager to halt or slow the spread of this disease through our country to ensure that as many people are saved as possible by, at the very least, making minor sacrifices such as avoiding meeting other people.

Our founding fathers fought a difficult struggle for seven years after the Lahore Resolution to make sure the dream of Pakistan comes true. This struggle we are fighting now may only last weeks or months. PM Imran Khan suggests the country cannot afford a mandatory lockdown and that, therefore, the best response is for people themselves to keep themselves at home and decide when they need to go out. It is far from the sole domain of the authorities to manage this emergency. The full involvement of the masses is necessary. Pakistan is a democracy, which means that its people have a say in the running of the country and are guaranteed their rights. But along with rights comes responsibilities. If a democracy is rule by the people, then the people have essential duties to fulfill. They must act responsibly in order for the nation to thrive and survive.

The people must act together in a synchronous manner. If each individual person kept his or her distance from every other person, then the masses as a whole will disperse and be low-density. Certain habits and instincts must also be controlled. For example, people must avoid touching their faces. That requires a lot of discipline on the very personal level. Certain people have extra special responsibilities, for example, those that run shops and businesses. They must, acting in conjunction with others, ensure that people can continue to get what they need without running the risk of contracting the virus. Different people have different duties to tend to in this crisis depending on their role in life. But we are all together in whatever we have to do. A tremendous nation endeavor needs to be undertaken in order to defend our vital food source from the locust attacks, keep the supply chains of the nation running, and prevent the virus from spreading along its channels. This requires huge amounts of determination and innovation.

Discipline is needed so that people respond to the epidemic with full urgency and strictly behave in the manner needed to keep the spread of the virus at bay. Unity is needed so that people cooperate with each other in the mass response and be aware of the need to keep each other and the general society safe. And faith is needed so that we can be confident that we will make it through the emergency, helping save as many of our people as possible, and that Pakistan will rebound from it stronger than it was before. Now is the time for a new Pakistan Resolution. We must resolve, first, to triumph over the epidemic and, second, to make our nation ready for any threat that may emerge from now on.

So let us all fully engage ourselves in the new battle for our nation and, as always, Pakistan Zindabad!

Coronavirus: The COVID-19 Pandemic

The entire world is right now going through a major pandemic of a disease known as COVID-19, caused by a coronavirus new to science that has been called SARS-CoV-2. This disease emerged in the city of Wuhan in China at the end of 2019 and has since spread to most countries in the world. As of March 22, 2020, around 275,000 thousand people have been infected and more than 11,000 have died, mostly the elderly and those already in weak health. As a result, lockdowns and states of emergencies are happening everywhere across the globe. It is believed that what is happening right now is the biggest global disruption since World War 2.

Within China, the outbreak is currently waning but it is just getting started in many other countries. That includes Pakistan. The contagion arrived here late, at the end of February, when two cases emerged of people who had just visited Iran, which is one of the worst-affected countries. 20 cases were confirmed by the second week of March. Now, 646 people are known to be infected in Pakistan. At the time of writing, https://tribune.com.pk/ (The Express Tribune) has a sticker on the side of their website stating such. Our healthcare system is already giving way under the pressure. Experts generally agree that it is up to the people, everybody, to take measures during this crisis and prevent or delay the spread of the disease.

That requires every person to be well-informed about this disease and what should be done. There have been pandemics before, including the 2009 swine flu which infected millions, but this is considered particularly serious because of how fast it is spreading and because the death rate for infected people is very high. COVID-19, often popularly referred to simply as the Coronavirus, is a respiratory disease that affects the lungs. When people are infected, it is usually around 5 days, but anywhere from 2 to 14 days, before symptoms appear. The virus attacks cells that make up the walls of the lung, usually causing coughing, fever, and shortness of breath, though some have no symptoms. In most cases, it manages to do little harm and tens of thousands have already recovered. But in around 20 percent of people known to be infected, mostly the elderly and those already in poor health, the infection worsens and causes pneumonia. In five percent of infected people, severe organ damage and multi-respiratory failure ensues, sending them into intensive care. The death rate is not clearly ascertained and is varying in time and place, but it is generally believed that between 2 to 4 percent of people known to be infected die. That includes nearly 15 percent of people over 80 years of age.

Infected people are most likely to be able to spread the virus to others when they are showing symptoms, although it can also happen as soon the person is infected. Spread of the virus usually happens by people coughing and sneezing, expelling liquid particles into the air that carry the virus. Other people might inhale the droplets or the droplets might land on surfaces and then other people who touch the surface pick up the virus, which can end up being transferred through the nose, eyes, or mouth. Research suggests the virus can survive outside the human body on surfaces for a few hours to a few days. One new study says it is a day on cardboard and a few days on smooth surfaces like plastic and stainless steel (sources: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200317-covid-19-how-long-does-the-coronavirus-last-on-surfaces, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/coronavirus-can-survive-up-to-3-hours-in-aerosols-and-up-to-3-days-on-some-surfaces-peer-reviewed-study-finds-2020-03-18?siteid=yhoof2&yptr=yahoo). Generally, people are at risk of contracting Coronavirus if they are in proximity to many other people and touch objects that lots of other people may have been touching.

Two things that people have to do are avoid catching the coronavirus and avoid spreading it to others, whether or not they know they have the disease. Those who are showing any symptoms of the disease must keep themselves isolated from other people. They should seek medical care, but they have to call a doctor instead of going to the hospital themselves. The government of Pakistan has just established a hotline, 1166, for people to call if they fear that they have COVID-19. People should always cover their faces when they sneeze or cough so that potentially infected droplets do not disperse into the air. They should use their elbows to cover their sneezes and coughs rather than their hands.

People who go out to high-risk areas are recommended to avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with their hands. This is rather difficult advice to follow as most people do it without thinking, but try to get these habits under control. Whenever they can, people should wash their hands thoroughly as this will rid their hands of any Coronavirus that might be there. They should wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds, making sure that soap reaches every nook and corner of their hands and gets washed out. People can also carry hand sanitizers with them that contain at least 70 percent alcohol. To disinfect their hands of possible coronavirus, they should rub the sanitizer all over their hands until hands become dry.

People should also limit their contact with the rest of society. This is known as social distancing and is being recommended and even enforced by authorities worldwide wherever the contagion is becoming severe. When going out, you should stay at least six feet away from other people. Large gatherings are to be avoided. When the pandemic really gets into full swing in Pakistan, like it is in many other countries right now, life will have to become very different. People will have to stay home and only go out for the most essential reasons. To learn more, go to this article on the blog of US’s National Institutes of Health, To Beat Covid-19, Social Distancing is a Must, https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2020/03/19/to-beat-covid-19-social-distancing-is-a-must/.

The idea of wearing a clinical facemask is very popular right now. These are meant to prevent small particles in the air from entering people’s nose and mouth and that includes coronavirus-carrying respiratory droplets. But it is not very important for ordinary people to do so. If everybody stockpiles on facemasks, it will create a mask shortage which could make masks unavailable to the people who really need them, people who are already sick and people who expose themselves to high risk of contracting coronavirus. If you are already infected with COVID-19, wearing a facemask means that when you sneeze and cough, the droplets you expel will mostly gather on the mask instead of contaminating the outside world. People like healthcare workers or family members of infected people must also have access to these masks, and a lot of them because masks have to keep being discarded, at all times to minimize the danger they are in. Everyone else should avoid getting too many masks.

Speaking of which, a lot of people are doing panic buying in response to the pandemic, but this is causing shortage of supplies. People should not buy more than what they really need in order to ensure that everybody gets what they need. The lockdown in China has mostly ended after two months. If quarantine has to be imposed on Pakistan, perhaps a similar amount of time is going to be how long people have to avoid going out, so prepare for this scenario.

There is no cure for COVID-19 yet, but people who are infected can increase their odds with medical treatment, like respirators to help the critically ill breathe. This means that the biggest problem with the pandemic is that too many people are getting sick at once for nations’ healthcare systems to handle. If we slow the spread of the disease, then even if the same number of people get infected eventually, their chances of survival will improve dramatically. This is what people mean by our current rallying cry of “Flatten the curve”. We must do everything we can to prevent this virus from spreading rapidly. That includes making sacrifices like staying at home and giving up on socialization for the time being.

It is very important to be well-informed. This is a rapidly progressing pandemic, so we need to know what is going on by the hour. This is also a disease new to the world, which means scientists are constantly learning more about it and how to cope with it. So stay tuned to the news, preferably of the electronic kind, as buying newspapers to read could be dangerous under these circumstances. But watch out for misinformation, as a huge amount of it is spreading around. Seek authentic and verified sources.

The top source for the world on COVID-19 info is the website for the World Health Organization (https://www.who.int/). Go to https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019 and look for their technical guidance, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance, and the latest situation report, https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/situation-reports. For those who want to know more about the pandemic, Our World in Data has comprehensive and constantly updated information on the pandemic (https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus). News agencies all over the world are now putting all their focus on the pandemic. Almost every piece of news you can read nowadays, especially on the international news agencies, relates to COVID-19 in some way. One particularly relevant news source is the New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News), https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/, dedicated to reporting on humanitarian emergencies.

As for the situation in Pakistan, the premier web source is http://covid.gov.pk/. It presents comprehensive up-to-date information on the current crisis in a very easily accessible format. You can also go on to Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations, and Coordination, http://nhsrc.gov.pk/, and the National Disaster Management Agency, http://www.ndma.gov.pk/. There is also website for National Institute of Health, https://www.nih.org.pk/. It may not be loading right now. Here is a cached webpage for their National Action Plan for COVID-19 (Pakistan), https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:z9r_m2m6d0MJ:https://www.nih.org.pk/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/COVID-19-NAP-V2-13-March-2020.pdf+&cd=13&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=pk.

There are many popular educational sources on the internet that can help people understand the coronavirus crisis. One of the best is SciShow on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/scishow). It already has made three videos on the emergence of COVID-19. YouTube channels It’s Okay to be Smart (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCH4BNI0-FOK2dMXoFtViWHw) and Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell (https://www.youtube.com/user/Kurzgesagt) have each made one video on the pandemic already which explain the situation very well. More videos are likely to be coming. Another good YouTube channel to turn to is Healthcare Triage, https://www.youtube.com/user/thehealthcaretriage.

Everybody in Pakistan must be awake to this crisis and take the necessary measures as soon as they can. The storm has only just begun. The worst is about to arrive and we must get ready. Stay safe, and may God be with us.

(More coverage of the current pandemic will be coming)

Pakistan’s March Towards Climate Action

On September 20th 2019, the biggest global climate strikes the world has ever seen so far took place. Happening on the eve of the UN Climate Summit in New York on 23 September, marches were held in more than 150 countries, with protesters calling on governments and businesses to end their inaction on climate change. On that day, a historic development took place in Pakistan itself as the country held its first ever climate strike, with protesters marching in several cities and towns. In Islamabad, a large crowd marched from the Press Club to the Parade Ground and presented demands to the Minister for Climate Change Zartaj Gul.

I joined the March in Islamabad and saw that the participants were mostly youth who showed a lot of enthusiasm for the cause. They eagerly signed the online petition I launched to urge the government of Pakistan to declare a climate change emergency by logging onto (https://www.change.org/p/petition-to-ministry-of-climate-change-for-enforcing-climate-change-emergency). One of the participants I met had earlier attended an awareness-raising session with me on income generation through eco-tourism in Pakistan’s salubrious areas.

In the Pakistan Climate March, a few political personalities attended. I personally didn’t see any except a lady who introduced herself as PTI senior member Nadia Khattak. She was filming young marchers and asking them what their message to Imran Khan was. Several gave their message, but one point they made in general was that Imran Khan has shown much interest in fighting problems like corruption but has not paid enough attention to Pakistan’s biggest problem of all, climate change.

This is an important point to consider. Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan mission aims to overcome the problems that have been holding us back for so long. Environmental degradation is a serious threat to the country, with Pakistan classified as one of the world’s top ten most vulnerable countries to climate change. Therefore, it has to be taken into account if we are to make a better Pakistan. Also, we must consider that creating a Naya Pakistan means equipping the nation with the means to tackle the challenges of the future. Climate change is a threat that is materializing extremely slowly and puts Pakistan’s very future in jeopardy. It is vital that we pursue policy to overcome climate change before the calamity becomes unavoidable.

Something else we have to realize is that while Imran Khan’s greater focus on corruption than climate change may seem like a skewing of priorities, the first goal actually aids the other. Pakistan will need extensive state action to tackle climate change, but widespread corruption hampers the proper functioning of the state. Certainly, corruption stands in the way of environmental causes. Corrupt officials take resources away from the hefty efforts needed for protecting the environment and in the perpetual conflict between profit-making and environmental preservation, they will always be in favor of profit-making. Corruption means the serious neglect of environmental regulation and the go-ahead to industries to pollute. What this means is that if Imran Khan succeeds in his mission to rid Pakistan of corruption, the country will be better able to fight for the environment. Moral cleansing “Naya Pakistan” and building ‘Clean Green Pakistan’ go hand in hand.

In fact, climate change goes hand in hand with a very wide range of other issues, putting it far from being the distinct and isolated problem that we often seem to treat it as. Take three issues that are of high significance to Pakistan, poverty, illiteracy, and war, and look at their relevance to the occurrence of climate change and the struggle to mitigate it. Rural poverty compels communities to harvest what little timber they can from their forest covers without acquiring means to reforest their land, removing a critical carbon sink. The people cannot be engaged in the effort to fight climate change without education. War makes the emission of greenhouse gases skyrocket. Pretty much everything in our lives determines our vulnerability and capacity to adapt to climate change.

It is clear that the distinction between climate change and “other” issues is entirely an artificial one. Climate change is a universal issue because the climate is a universal influence on the world we live in. The two are, in fact, interwoven into every mesh. Every aspect of the world is determined by the climate and every aspect of the world influences climate. This means that climate change will impact everything and everything will play a role in how climate change occurs. The proper path for Pakistan, indeed for all nations, is to find out how to incorporate all other issues with the climate issue and to learn how to bring everything together in fighting climate change. That is MY message to Imran Khan.

It is a message the whole world needs to heed. We cannot fight climate change without discovering the proper way to do it. That is an area in which the climate change movement appears to not be paying enough attention to. This is exemplified by the recent climate strikes involving school-skipping by a lot of youth climate activists. Youth should not just be pushing harder on the rulers to take action. They should also be getting knowledge in what needs to be done to fight climate change.

Young activist Greta Thunberg, the inspiration behind the climate strikes, has been urging politicians to “listen to the scientists.” Yet, it seems what she mostly means is that they should listen to what the scientists say about how global warming is occurring. What about listening to what scientists say about how to fight climate change? The basic idea of the climate strikes appears to be that because we know that climate change is happening, all we must do now is put pressure on the authorities to start taking action against it, as if we already have all the right solutions in plan.

Perhaps the reason why politicians aren’t taking action is because they don’t know enough about what action to take. Neither does anybody else when it comes to practical and effective climate remedies. Instead of just protesting and lobbying, the climate change movement must also put the people’s energy into thinking and researching and discovering potential solutions to climate change.

Regardless, what climate strikers have done around the world is outstanding. They have essentially succeeded in making the world pay attention to climate change and be concerned about it. It is a good beginning. The marches held in Pakistan are a promising sign for our nation. Pakistan Climate March has been a citizen-led initiative, with students spontaneously and enthusiastically coming out to answer the call spread by Climate Action Now. Majority of the marchers were very young people still in school and university. It shows that Pakistan’s next generation is eager to tackle the climate crisis.

Still, some people speak of ways the event could have been better. They say, for example, that there should have been even more youth attending, because of how the next generation will have to deal with climate change. But the PTI member Nadia Khattak gave a different view on the Climate March. Noting how most of the participants were young, she said that people are generally concerned about the environment when they are age 13-25, but their concern wears off afterwards as their own lives take center stage. It is the working professionals, she emphasized, who are most capable of taking action on climate change and regretted that not many were present at the march.

My take is that maybe working professionals don’t need to be out marching because they are working. We must bear in mind that protesting is not everything. When you are marching in a climate demonstration, you are calling on others to do the actual work needed to mitigate climate change, but it is distinct from that work. It doesn’t matter if the working people are not involved in climate strikes as long as they are busy in other ways tackling the issue. But the young people and students also have obligations besides marching. They need to be studying the subject of climate change and preparing for tackling the issue throughout their lives. I hope our students don’t get into the habit of skipping school over and over again to protest climate change. There is a lot we can do in school to contribute to saving the world from climate change.

In fact, we should increase coverage of climate change and related topics in our curriculum. Pakistan’s education system devotes too little time to environmental issues. Not only do we have to change that, but our coverage of climate change should be organized in such a manner as to enable students to comprehensively understand it and be good at thinking up solutions for solving climate change. My main advice is that we should not treat climate change as a distinct subject to be taught separately. Rather, all other subjects should be taught in school in such a way as to emphasize whatever relevance they have to climate change.

In physics and chemistry class, we can learn how the greenhouse effect works and how the burning of fossil fuels happens. In technology and engineering class, we can learn a lot more about the machines that burn fossil fuels and how we can design the industry and technology that powers civilization to be more environmentally-friendly. In earth sciences, of course, we can learn directly about the climate and how it is changing. In biology class, we can learn about how life on Earth interacts with the climate and how it will be affected by, and affect, climate change, which will also give us insights into how to manage the biosphere to enable it to fight climate change. In economics class, we can learn about how the world economy enables the human activities that are changing the climate and about how we can change the way the economy is structured to make it more sustainable for the environment. The list goes on and on.

We must keep the lessons of the climate strikes of 20 September in mind as we plan for what we need to do next. Thanks to the historic Climate March held in our nation, Pakistan now has its own fully-fledged climate movement. If we succeed in pushing climate change to the forefront of the nation’s attention, there are many ways Pakistan can play its part in fighting climate change. We contribute only a tiny percentage of global CO2 emissions while at the same time being one of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change. This means that making Pakistan more carbon-neutral will by itself not help very much. But we can fight for the climate change cause on the international stage, pushing other countries to work together and do more on climate change. We must always remember that we are one player in the larger scheme of things and humanity can solve climate change if all the countries of the world engage in collective action.

Pakistanis can also contribute immensely to the field of knowledge regarding climate change. The question of what the future holds in store and what we can do about it is still largely unanswered, so it is we, the people, who need to dig for answers. Pakistan’s youth and professionals can get involved in finding solutions to the climate change crisis only by empowering themselves with research and inquiry. Just know that the scope of the knowledge we are dealing with is vast. To study climate change is to study the entire world and the way it works. We also have to look in every possible direction for climate solutions. We better start now, because there is a lot we have to do to push forward the new and fast-growing frontier of knowledge about both the reality of climate change and what we can do about it.

The climate strikes of September 20th were unprecedented, but as we wake up to the climate change crisis, it is only the beginning of what is bound to be a very long and difficult road ahead for humanity. Climate change is a huge problem, one that puts the future of civilization and the planet in jeopardy, and the world needs to give everything it has to solving the problem. It is vital that Pakistan involves itself in this fight and fully devotes its resources and energy, regardless of how much it has available, to making it possible for its people and all of humanity to continue having a future. Whatever we deal with on a daily basis, climate change is Pakistan’s number one national issue. We now just have to deal with it as such.

Author’s bio;

Writer is director at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management and author of upcoming book on Pakistan’s multi-hazard risk analysis.


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.

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.

Earthquake Strikes Kashmir Again

A strong earthquake has just struck Pakistan. According to USGS, its epicenter is near Mirpur in Azad Kashmir, a region where earthquakes are very common, and was a 5.8 on the Richter scale and had a very shallow focus of only 10 kilometers deep. The quake has reportedly caused a lot of damage there and has been felt across a very wide area, including most of Punjab and Khyber-Paktunkwha, as well as some parts of India. Reports coming in show that walls and ceilings of several buildings have collapsed and many roads are destroyed. Electricity and cell services have been knocked out. It is too early to assess the damage completely but earlier reports put the toll at 10 dead and 100 wounded, and by 7:30 p.m some say 19 dead and 300 wounded.

The authorities in Pakistan are carrying out urgent rescue and relief operations in the affected areas. Their job is likely to be very challenging. We must not forget that dangers may still persist. Besides the fact that wounded people are in a race against time to be treated, NDMA warns that aftershocks could persist for another twenty-four hours. These aftershocks are going to be smaller than the main earthquake but they could cause serious damage to structures that are already damaged. It is possible that more buildings could collapse in the coming hours or days. We must make sure that more people do not fall victim if such is the case. People are safe from building collapses by not being in the buildings, but it is impracticable for people to spend day and night outside. Hazardous buildings must be identified as soon as possible.

Also, the epicenter of the earthquake is reportedly close to Mangla Dam. Tarbela Dam, which is an earth-filled dam, is also reportedly in the seismic zone. Is there a possibility that these dams have been damaged by the earthquake? If so, then it creates the risk of outburst flood, which could result in a huge disaster. It is very unlikely, because the earthquake was so small, but we must keep close eye on the dams. Besides, anything could happen as a result of an earthquake. What if a major landslide from the hills around Mangla Dam occurs and creates a great tsunami in the reservoir which damages the dam?

People in the earthquake-affected areas will face the challenge of having vital provisions delivered to them. Food, water, and medicine are likely to be in short supply in many areas and have to be delivered. Because of the mountainous terrain in much of the disaster zone and the road damage, this is likely to be difficult. Landslides, rockslides, and avalanches could also have occurred as a result of the earthquake or will occur. If they occur, they are likely to wreak havoc on transportation routes and could also be a direct danger to people.

Most urgent priority is rescuing people from collapsed buildings and other perils and giving medical treatment to wounded people. Damage to roads will be a serious obstacle to both tasks. There should be extensive support coming by way of the air. As usual, Pakistan military has gotten involved and is delivering speedy rescue and relief.

In a situation like this, it is very common for people to crowd around sites of fallen rubble where people may be trapped. The big load of manpower may be very helpful, but crowds of people may engage in harmful behavior. For example, they may make a lot of noise that makes it hard to hear sounds coming from within the rubble. If they collect onto damaged structures, they may cause it to disintegrate further. An earthquake is an immediate calamity and one that occurs in Pakistan’s northern areas will likely not see delivery of help coming immediately. Therefore, relief from the local people themselves, including non-professionals, will be important. But even if they strive to give help, we must make sure they give the right kind of help and not do anything counterproductive.

As for the danger of further structural collapse, it might be best for people to take shelter outside of their homes. Perhaps they can congregate in certain buildings which are very sturdy and show no damage. If people have to be in their homes or in any building which could conceivably collapse, they should take measures to keep themselves safe from the falling debris or rubble. They can stay near the exits so they can rush outside in a moment’s notice. They can place large objects in the house and stay next to it so that falling ceilings or walls may be kept slanted over them, leaving a void below for people to be in. They can maybe build their own shelter inside the house, like creating two piles of furniture and putting one big piece of furniture, like a bed, over them, so people can be in the space below. Then, they can be protected from falling debris.

These are on-the-spot ideas. Best course of action is for the people in the affected area to observe the damage that has happened and assess what kind of further damage could happen and how to safeguard against them.

Since this is an earthquake centered on Azad Kashmir and has reached as wide as northern India, it is reasonable to assume Indian-occupied Kashmir has been affected. Search on the Internet revealed no news about that region. That is a distressing indicator of the blackout which India has imposed on the people there. We have no idea what is going on there, but the suffering of the Kashmiri people due to Modi’s policies has likely been exacerbated by the natural disaster. Medicine is in short supply and hospitals are filled with people injured in violence perpetrated by the state. In these circumstances, Impact of the earthquake can only exacerbate matters further.

As the earthquake is so recent and communication with the affected area is rather difficult, assessment of what has happened may not be complete or finalized yet. But we know it does not seem to be any ordinary earthquake. Felt reports, which are eyewitness observations of an earthquake sent to a concerned agency, are useful for determining the characteristics of the earthquake. I will give my own observation here. I was sitting in an office building with Zeenia Satti, PPLDM’s CEO, sometime after 4 PM and I noticed my chair started to shake. It was a very mild shaking. It was unmistakable but seemed somewhat breezy. There was no sound coming from anywhere. The two of us alarmed the rest of the room and everybody got up to leave the room, but we hesitated in getting out. I thought earthquake was over and sat down on my chair again, but the same shaking persisted. I was surprised. Islamabad rarely sees significant tremors, but this one was both unusually big and unusually long. An earthquake like this must have been very intense in its source area in Kashmir.

We hope that the casualties are minor, that affected people receive adequate help as soon as possible, and that the affected area recovers quickly. Earthquakes can be of any size and strike at any moment. It is vital that people be prepared if there are known fault lines in their region. Such preparation is needed in Pakistan and we should realize that we cannot wait at all in implementing earthquake-ready measures. A repeat of the great 2005 Kashmir earthquake could very well happen again. In fact, what if today’s earthquake was just a foreshock? Hopefully, it is not, but it must serve as a wake-up call for the nation to become earthquake resilient.

Indian Occupied Kashmir merits special international attention now. OCHA should head for IOK.

Apollo 11: What the First Men on the Moon Mean to us

Fifty years ago, an epic voyage was undertaken which will be etched in human memory forever as one of the most pivotal events in history. It was Apollo 11, the 1969 mission to send the first human beings to land on the Moon and return back. The successful completion of the mission amazed the entire world and captured the hearts and imagination of people everywhere. It still continues to do so, as in 2019 the world observes the half-centenary of the first Moon landing with great enthusiasm.

Three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins, were on board the Apollo 11 spacecraft, which blasted off on top of a powerful Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969, the fiftieth anniversary of which has been accompanied by a lunar eclipse. It was on July 20, after four days of hurtling through space, that the lunar module Eagle, which separated from the main craft, touched down on the surface of the Moon, and out of it stepped Neil Armstrong, to be the first man to set foot on the lunar landscape, followed shortly afterwards by Buzz Aldrin. Michael Collins remained in orbit around the Moon in the command module Columbia, waiting to rejoin his fellow astronauts 21 hours later. Hence, that day has gone down in history as one so important as to be a turning point for humanity. We thus spent 20 July, 2019, the anniversary of the very moon landing itself, with the commemoration the event is due.

On July 24, after 9 days of their unprecedented voyage far out into space, the Apollo 11 astronauts finally returned to their home planet Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean, and received acclaim far and wide from their fellow human beings. July 24 is therefore now the conclusion of our half-centenary commemorations as well.

The Apollo 11 landing, which would be followed in the next few years by more moon landings, was part of America’s Apollo space program, an ambitious project under NASA to compete with the Soviet Union in the Space Race to put the first man on the Moon. America first pledged to aim for that goal in 1961 under its new, young President John F. Kennedy and it succeeded just eight years later. It was a victory for America, a moment that gained the country immense prestige on the world stage. But it was also much more than that. The first moon landing meant something profound for people everywhere, a victory for the entire world in a way. Once the Apollo mission was completed, it became clear that it was not just an American achievement, it was not just an achievement of Western civilization, it was an achievement of humanity and one that we can consider the greatest ever.

It is not surprising, therefore, that even with the passing of half a century, it still grips our imagination and inspires us. The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is being spent not only with celebration of the epic voyage but with extensive reflections and discussions revolving around it.

We are now in a time when there is a renewed push for space travel in countries around the world. Humanity continues to harbor the ambition to travel into space and to go further, where none have gone before. For current and future generations of space enthusiasts, Apollo 11 remains a pivotal event. It is the most important milestone in space travel. The 60s, the golden age of space exploration, saw many milestones, such as Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, and Apollo 8, the first crew to orbit the Moon. But the landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon was the first time ever that human beings landed on another world besides Earth.

As we remember that unprecedented feat, there are a lot of questions for us to ponder. Why did America strive to send men to the Moon? What did it accomplish? What is the legacy of Apollo? People have debated these questions since the Space Race began. Now, in the fiftieth year since that Race concluded, it is worth our while to focus again on the meaning of the landing of men on the Moon and to realize how it is important.

On the face of it, going to the Moon offered little in the way of practical significance. Yet, the regard that most people hold it in is enormous. The Apollo 11 moon landing is one of the biggest events of our historical memory and we, in fact, consider it to be without equal in a way. It was a big deal for the entire world when it happened and the importance people attach to it has only grown over the decades. It may be because the first moon landing was not just a milestone for the human race, a new height of achievement. It could be considered also as the moment that the very human race itself transformed.

The human race has always been supposed to exist by certain principles. One of them is that it only inhabits Planet Earth. For as long as we existed, we were bound to the surface of the Earth by its gravitational force, only able to gaze at the vast expanses of space and its innumerable worlds beyond. On July 20, 1969, that changed. We could tread on one of ‘those’ other worlds and the way was now clear for us. The moon landing signaled that there was no limit to where we could ultimately go.

It is not just the whole endeavor. It is not just that day. It is the very moment that Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface. Before, no human being had ever stood on any object not on the Earth or from it, any object existing naturally in outer space. And then Armstrong stepped down from the ladder and his left foot touched lunar soil. Humanity then became a race existing beyond just one world and that mattered in every which way. This is why Neil Armstrong’s first words while stepping onto the Moon were “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.

It sent the whole of humanity a message that there was nothing out of bounds for us, no milestone we could not reach. For Americans, their country’s position as the leader in human progress was consolidated, but for everyone, it was clear that there was no limit to the progress that could be made. And what else do human beings have the desire to progress in more than travel and exploration? Learning and discovering is another innate human desire and Apollo also offered its fair share of that. Also, we were drawn to Apollo because no other endeavor had been so difficult and so vast in scale and, at the same time, so novel. Finally, the Apollo moon landing offered a picture of the shape of things to come. It cleared a path for us to continue to push forward into the unknown and we still intend to tread that path.

At the same time, beneath the marvels of both outer space and man’s endeavor to travel into it, there are hard realities that we have to grapple with. The first landing on the Moon itself only changed the world in spirit but not in any concrete way. As a result, there have existed doubts that it is worth the honor we give to it. The cost of the Apollo space program was enormous and that combined with the lack of practical benefit to be derived from reaching the Moon meant that the whole venture was controversial in many ways. Back then, there were many who considered it to be a diversion of resources that could be used for bettering people’s lives and solving serious problems down on Earth. They thought of it as a distraction and a burden on the world, especially for America and its people. Such concerns contributed to the decline of America’s travels into deep space after 1972. Decades later, we have mostly forgotten about those issues surrounding the extensive space program that existed before then, but these are questions that space exploration still poses.

To make sense of this, we have to understand the context in which the world’s focus on going into space, 1957-1972, too place. America was heavily involved in its space program throughout a decade in which it had many other issues to deal with. With widespread protests, unrest, and tensions occurring continuously across the country over the Civil Rights movement, inequality, poverty, the counter-culture, and the Vietnam War, the sixties were a difficult decade for America. The entire Space Race also came in the midst of a difficult century for the world, as the 1900s, from beginning to end, were a time when war, violence, conflict, upheaval, tensions, and oppression raged unbridled across the globe. The race to the Moon took place in the aftermath of the very worst of this, the Second World War, and while the world was at risk of a third world war that could wipe out humanity.

Such was the reality down on Earth while men were pushing into outer space. Against this backdrop, space exploration had complex meaning. It could be considered a diversion from certain problems but also served as a solution to others, the main issues of the century in fact. By focusing on a competition to master space travel, the participants of the Cold War were led away from their urge for violence and confrontation. The Space Race represented a new path for the world after the carnage of WW2, a path in which achievement could drive history instead of conflict. The Apollo space program could be seen as a respite from the issues and squabbles people were faced with on Earth. It represented the purity of humanity’s efforts to advance and further its collective boundaries.

There were also many other real benefits of the rush into space, benefits that continue today. By going to the Moon, mankind’s scientific knowledge was expanded. We got to know a lot more not only about the Moon itself but the entire solar system and its history, since the Moon, being an essentially unchanging world, serves as a record of its neighborhood. The main contribution of Apollo, of course, was in technology. In order to land men on the Moon, tremendous technological advancements had to be made in a very wide variety of important fields. Electronics had to be revolutionized with the development of better telecommunication and better computer technology, with a particular view towards the creation of micro-electronics. So, too, were there improvements in rocketry, in material engineering, and even in food safety. Finally, Apollo harbors broad responsibility for all the satellites which surround Earth today and are put to a wide variety of important uses. All in all, the push into space accelerated the advance of human prowess enormously and it is this which has changed the world.

There are also a lot of very valuable lessons the Apollo space program has for us and much that it can inspire us with. It showed how much human beings could achieve if they all put their minds to it and engaged in collective effort. The moon landing was achieved against all odds. The effort to accomplish it began little more than half a century since the horse and buggy vanished from the roads and when America’s spaceflight capabilities were in their infancy. On top of that, America during most of the space program was preoccupied with the Vietnam War, exerting much of its effort towards that end. It seemed unlikely that the nation could fulfill President Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the Moon and back before the end of the decade before anyone else.

Yet, in just eight years, that goal was achieved in its entirety. It was because despite all the disputes and squabbles that were going on, the people of America and several other countries which contributed were mostly united and they were determined to make the first moon landing possible. There have been few other projects in which so many were so eager to be involved. Think of how much else humanity could achieve if such an attitude was applied to everything. In the wake of the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo, let us continue to be motivated by this lesson. The endeavor to land the first man on the Moon should serve as an example to all of us.

Once the first moon landing was achieved, the number of people united behind it only skyrocketed. Michael Collins may not have landed on the Moon but he has a lot to tell us about it. He recalled that after coming back to Earth and taking a tour of the world, he was surprised to find the reaction he received from people was not along the lines of “Congratulations, your country did it” but instead, “We did it”. Across national borders, the moon landing was looked upon as an accomplishment for all people and this shows how much potential all of humanity has in being united for a common purpose.

The ventures into space in the second half of the twentieth century had a big impact on humanity’s collective consciousness in many ways. Through the sheer magnitude of the achievements of spacefaring, it made them think of the human race as being capable of anything and as having opened up a future of boundless possibilities. But heading out into space for the first time changed our thinking forever in another way, one that is the most unexpected result of the space programs.

It was supposed to be all about space. We had always been an earthbound species and now our endeavor was to change that and reach for what lay beyond Earth. Going to the Moon and elsewhere was our sole motivation. But in the process of doing so, our very own planet entered into the focus. Not only were we exploring outer space and uncovering what lay beyond, but we ended up rediscovering Earth as well.

By going into space for the first time, human beings were able to see the Earth from afar and hence as a whole. The first astronauts sent into orbit were the first to view Earth’s splendor as they set eyes on its blue surface shining brightly in the light of the Sun. Astronauts later sent farther into space were able to see Earth in its full, circular majesty. They were also to share that sight with all those back on Earth thanks to the cameras they brought onboard. The crew of Apollo 8, the first to orbit around the Moon in December 1968, took a photo of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon, half-covered, known as Earthrise. As the crew of Apollo 17 left for the moon for the last time, they took the first full picture of the Earth, given the name Blue Marble.

Seeing the Earth in full view caused a profound shift in our thinking. The impact the sight had on the astronauts themselves was huge and there was an impact also of the images on the world. Being able to see our world from this new perspective was of course interesting. It was also breathtaking. We have been able to gaze at the heavens since time immemorial, finding the sights in outer space to be majestic. But when we got ourselves into space, we found nothing, not the Moon or the Sun or anything else, to be as beautiful as our planet, a mixture of blue, white, and brown shining brightly in the sunlight. As Mike Collins recalled of the Apollo 11 voyage to the Moon, “The first time we saw the Moon up close, it was a magnificent spectacle. It was huge. The Sun was coming around it, cascading and making a golden halo, and filled our entire window. As impressive as the view was of this alien Moon seen up close, it was nothing compared to the sight of the tiny Earth. The Earth was the main show. The Earth was it.”

In the end, it seems that the Earth itself, as a planet on its own out there in space, became the focal point of our explorations of space. Furthermore, the biggest result of looking at Earth from a far was that it forever changed how people look at the world they live in.

Before, as we lived on the Earth, it always seemed endless, like a universe in itself. But with the advent of space exploration, by seeing it against the background of space, we were able to see how limited our world is. It was a small oasis, providing us with everything we need for our existence, in the endless desert of space. As a result, we began to appreciate the world more and be more conscious of its fragility. We began to think of the entire world as being one. Now, more than ever, we wanted to take care of it.

The Earth photos made plainer the destruction and futility of war, already evident to us for some time now. Pacifist attitudes were encouraged. So too was humanitarianism across borders. People had a greater desire to help other people wherever they were in the world and international charities took the images as potent symbols. And people also had instilled in them the desire to take care of the Earth itself. Earthrise and Blue Marble provided kinder for the newly-born environmental movement. People had just started to notice how we were wreaking havoc on natural environments everywhere and seeing the Earth as a whole drove home the point that what we were destroying was everything that we had. Inspired in part by the release of Earthrise, the first Earth Day was inaugurated little more than a year later.

What no doubt contributed to this awareness was how exploring outer space was by itself a quest that yielded little actual benefit for humanity. Our desire to go into space is fueled in part by how marvelous it is to us. The cosmos is of a grand scale and the wonders that exist in it are endless and awe-inspiring. At the same time, it is completely inhospitable to us human beings. This was a point made in the Apollo 11 mission itself. As is well known, Neil Armstrong’s first words as he stepped onto the surface of the Moon were, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. When it was Buzz Aldrin’s turn to take his first step, his first words upon seeing the landscape around him was “Magnificent desolation”.

Armstrong’s first words are what all of us take to heart. But Aldrin’s first words also carry an important meaning for us, a meaning that in fact may be actually of more significance to humanity, if only we choose to realize it. The Moon was a magnificent place to reach but it was also desolate, completely lifeless and completely still. The same went for the rest of outer space, made up of vast, empty voids dotted with sparse objects that, as far as we can see, are either desolate or hellish (also hard to reach). The cosmos around Earth has little to provide us with. Only the Earth has everything. Outer space is incredibly vast, endless in fact, but also barren, while Earth is bountiful, filled with all we need, but is also very, very minute.

So outer space has always captivated us and our desire to reach for the stars has been strong. But in doing so, our attention was quickly drawn to our home planet. We would never take it for granted again and the situation it is in became clearer. The same explosive growth of civilization which has enabled mankind to extend its reach into outer space so quickly also has rendered the Earth vulnerable to our actions. The importance of taking care of the world was driven home to us and that is perhaps the biggest gift the pioneering space programs of the twentieth century have given us.

So by all means, we should continue to travel into space. We should continue to imagine and to push forward towards the countless possibilities for us that lie out there. And we should at the same time do all we can to maintain the well-being of the planet from which we take off. We need to be responsible in how we live on it and we need to take care of it using the same ingenuity, prowess, willpower, and teamwork that Apollo proved that humanity is capable of.

Our home planet must also be kept in our gaze and our fascination. In fact, it should be our main interest. Outer space is magnificent in terms of its sheer scale. Grand spectacles are offered up by its endless expanse. The Earth is equally magnificent in its intricacy. Packed into the small space that is our planet is an endless variety of wonders. There is enormous complexity and diversity in everything that is on it and that makes up our world and much of what is on it is amazing in form. Our world is also not fully revealed to us and we continue to explore it.

Just the fact that most of the ocean floor is uncharted while the surfaces of the Moon, Mars, and Venus are almost fully mapped is testament to this. Earth is a world of spectacles just as the cosmos is and is one that is for our survival and our prosperity. So we should continue to keep one, far-reaching eye towards the cosmos and all its planets, stars, nebulas, and galaxies and another, more intimate eye, on the Earth and its oceans, atmosphere, terrain, landscapes, and, most of all, incredible diversity of life.

Life is what makes Earth unique in the universe that we know and it is the most wondrous part of our planet. Not only is the variety of life almost unlimited but so is the complexity of all living things. Nowhere in the entire universe are there more marvels to explore than in life on Earth. Yet, it is also among what is most threatened on our Earth. Due to human activity, the health of wild ecosystems is being destroyed and countless species are being driven to extinction. When a species goes extinct, it is gone permanently. That should be the most painful reality that looking at Earth makes us realize. As Earth is all that we have in the cold abyss of the universe, every time a species on it goes extinct, it reduces what is there with us forever. It is a loss for the way the world is supposed to be and also a loss for humanity, directly, as any species is more likely than not to be of use. Imagine what the world would be like now if chickens and cattle became extinct before they could be domesticated. All of us tend not to give the recognition to the enormity of this reality that we need to, but looking at our vibrant blue planet standing in contrast to the blackness of space will give us that awareness.

There is so much meaning to be found in Apollo 11, the first voyage to the Moon, as we commemorate the passing of half a century since. Today is the anniversary of the final day of the voyage, when the first men on the Moon finally return to Earth, their home world, after 9 days in space on history’s greatest voyage. After all the jubilation of their historic trip to the Moon, in the end, that may have been the part of the voyage that meant the most to them. To be back home on their planet full of life and full of the hospitability humanity has always known, after so long in the magnificent desolation of space, to once again feel something as mundane as the Earth’s gravity which holds everything together, is enough to make them appreciate the Earth’s worth more than anything else. While only very few can be able to share that experience, all of us should learn what it can teach us.

Our fifty-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission ends here. We spent it not only looking back at the past and at the groundbreaking achievements of people back then but also looking forward towards the future. It is the future of space travel, of course, guided by Apollo’s legacy. As human civilization continues to march forward and as we make progress in human capability at accelerating speeds, we will be able to push farther and farther out into space and how far we will go and where we will ultimately end up, no one knows. But at the same time, as human civilization grows with no end in sight, the weight it places on planet Earth grows and the difficult realities it creates continue onwards. How that will ultimately end up, also no one knows. We have to keep this in mind as we look towards the future of space travel and we need progress in our attitudes towards each other and towards the world.

Let Neil Armstrong, Buzz Alrin, Michael Collins, and the 400,000 other people who worked on Apollo 11 serve as the source of inspiration to us in this regard as we honor them for their heroic achievement. Our remembrance does not end here and likely never will, for they will serve as an inspiration to the world always. But we serve them no justice unless we ensure that there will forever be a world in which their legacy lives on, a world that future space travellers can always continue to look back and know there is a home to return to. There is going to be a lot we will have to do, but just as humanity in the 1960s determined to reach the Moon and succeeded, so too can humanity now unite and determine to protect and preserve the Earth for all future generations and so too can we succeed. In the end, perhaps the simplest lesson that can guide us is that, beneath the wondrous realm of space, our blue planet Earth is far from endless, but the diversity of everything on it is endless.

And all of that, we need to protect and cherish forever.