QUAKE BROUGHT DEATHS BUT MADE NATION ALIVE

Relief operations lacked coordinated plan, contingency strategy a dire need of time.

From SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI, Islamabad
 Oct 17 - 23, 2005

On the morning of October 8 the country faced the awesome furry of the nature in the form of an unprecedented earthquake that caused horrific devastation specially in Azad Kashmir, certain parts of NWFP and Islamabad. The magnitude of disaster has stunned the nation as with every passing day the number of dead and injured has multiplied from 20,000 on the first day to over 100,000 dead and from 41,000 injured to 200,000 by Wednesday.

The quake registered 7.6 on the Richter Scale, making it one of the most powerful-ever tremor to rock South Asia. The one in 2001 which struck the Indian state of Gujrat, killing over 20,000, had registered 7.7 but Saturday's calamity was greater in magnitude even than the earthquake of 1935 that destroyed Quetta, killing nearly 60,000. According to the US Geological Survey, the quake's epicenter was just northeast of Muzaffarabad in AJK's Neelum Valley and it was described by experts as "shal-low" (meaning that its origin was close to the earth's surface) which explains why it was felt so intensely by those who experienced it.

Million of people have lost the roof over their heads as hundreds of thousands of houses, specially in Azad Kashmir and mountainous areas and villages of Northern Areas have been razed to the ground. The death and destruction shown on TV screen on the first two days focused on the collapse of a high rise in the capital but it was only a tip of the iceberg which gradually revealed large extent of deaths and destruction specially in Muzaffarabad, Bagh and Rawalakot. The AJK Prime Minister, Sardar Sikander Hayat, described himself as the PM of a graveyard in view of the large-scale deaths and destruction.

The chief correspondent of a national daily of Islamabad who visited Muzafarabad on Monday described the situation in the city in these words: "The gravity of massive shocks has started to filter in. Starvation, disease, injuries, biting cold, anger, depression, breakdown of law and order and now heavy rain haunt survivors of Saturday's devastating earthquake in which over 100,000 people are feared dead." In a total collapse of civil and military administration in AJK - no electricity, no clean drinking water, and a collapsed telephone system - has made hundreds of thousands people suffer while an ill-prepared and un-coordinated government operation is unable to meet the enormity of the rescue and relief needs of the quake victims. With the quake also killing a large number of civil administration staff and their relatives there is no one to properly plan and launch the rescue and relief operations in an organized and coordinated manner.

Driven out of their homes by the disaster, the shelterless, hungry, thirsty, inured and grief-stricken people are roaming the streets of Muzaffarabad and Garhi Habibullah with no one in sight to help them and their families get back to their feet.

Although aid and rescue workers have started reaching Muzaffarabad with food, medicines, tents and blankets as the road through Kohala Bridge has become inaccessible, aid is not reaching those affectees who really need it and are living in villages, and valleys around Muzaffarabad where roads have been blocked by landslides.

The death toll of the 11-storey residential complex, which collapsed on Saturday after a strong tremor shook the capital, rose to 34. The statistics made available by Magistrate Tariq Rahmat show that the volunteers had rescued 89 people so far, including two women on Tuesday and recovered 33 trapped under the debris.

This tragedy has once again brought to the fore the extreme inadequacy of our emergency services, the total lack of coordination in disaster relief operations and a virtual breakdown of the administrative structure without which such operation cannot be mounted in an effective manner. After we have buried the dead, tended to the injured and surveyed the destruction and damage caused by this catastrophe, we should, in addition to the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts, consider preparing a blueprint for disaster relief and control operations for future emergencies and in this context set up a federal agency for such work.

However, from the ruin and rubble left behind by Saturday's devastating earthquake has induced a new spirit of humanitarian feeling among Pakistanis, of which the nation can be justly proud of. While the international community has rallied support for the quake victims with considerable aid, it is the average Pakistani's response to the catastrophe that stands out as a heart-warming example of solidarity and self help. Even before the true scale of the disaster was known, people from all walks of life had sprung into action - donating, mobilizing, volunteering, and caring for the affectees. Thanks to advancements in telecommunications, the mobile phone played a pivotal role in advising people where to converge and what to give - all in the form of simple text messages that guided people to various aid collection points.

Makeshift collection centers have cropped up all over the country on the roadsides, in mohallas and in apartment complexes to facilitate the process of donations. While there may be sporadic reports of looting in the affected areas, no one dare touch goods at the relief camps left unattended at night. The will and the able-bodied are thronging relief centers and agencies offering themselves as volunteers. The phenomenal response has been as heart warming as it is spontaneous - a rebuff to the cynics amongst us. It disproves the notion that we have become an apathetic lot, hardened by years of mis-governance and popular frustration. The quake tragedy has united and, in some ways, empowered the nation, and made even bickering politicians set their differences aside for the present and work together for the relief and rehabilitation of the stricken people. NGOs involved in health, education and development too have stepped forward, but given the rulers' hostility towards them, many may not know how to participate in the on-going relief effort. The government must try to draw them in and utilize their networks to provide succour to the quake victims.

Despite quantum help from international community and generous donations by the Pakistani people the rehabilitation of affected people will also cause a big burden on the national exchequer. It is too early to estimate the real impact of the rehabilitation program on the budget but it can be said without any doubt that it would cause a big drain leading to an increase in fiscal deficit. Thanks to robust growth during the last few years, the economy has the strength to bear this shock. One shudders to imagine what had happened if this tragedy of such magnitude had occurred a few years back.