THE EARTH QUAKE
TRAGEDY IS ENORMOUS BUT THE SPIRIT MUST PREVAIL
All the Pakistanis stand together in this difficult hour with those who have lost near and dear ones and rendered homeless
By SHABBIR H. KAZMI
Oct 17 - 23, 2005
The trauma of 8th October earthquake is still unfolding. The death toll is on the rise and after a week rescue work is being abandoned. Now the effort is to provide relief to the survivors facing shortage of food and difficulties due to fast approaching cold weather. The mercury level is going down with each passing day and living in tents could only mean more deaths. Most of the houses have collapsed or have been damaged to a level where inhibiting in those buildings is just impossible. People have not only lost near and dear ones but also do not have any shelter. International aid and assistance has been pouring but we are losing this cruel race against time.
The positive point is that a nation which was divided in ethnic and religious groups is trying to cope up with this natural calamity coherently. Influx of international assistance is increasing with each passing day. However, the response of general public and business community is unprecedented. Every one, irrespective of his/her financial status, is trying to donate whatever is possible. The younger generation is also playing a very active role. It is on record that relief goods have been collected in tons and being sent upcountry expeditiously. However, damaged roads have become a serious constraint. Helicopters of Pakistan Air Force, Navy and Army are carrying goods to areas, which are still inaccessible by road and on return they are also bringing injured. Many countries have sent relief workers as well as helicopters to assist but the growing impression is that a lot more has to be done at a much faster pace to save the survivors of earthquake. Fast approaching harsh winter demands construction of houses in days rather than in months. People just cannot live in tents in freezing temperature.
It is true that jolts were of high intensity touching 7.6 level on Richter Scale. However, a closer look at the devastation shows that the worst hit were school and hospital buildings constructed by the government. It certainly points to some inherent weaknesses in the construction work being done in the public sector. Questions are also being asked about the quality of work on Margala Tower. Two out of five blocks were demolished. Similarly, many of the other high-rise buildings were not damaged to a large extent. It is also being said that certain irregularities and weaknesses were pinpointed in the building but apartments were handed over to buyers, who also started living there. It is worth noting that one apartment in this building worth Rs 15 million. Not only the rich were the occupants of this building but some foreigners were also residing there.
Initially this building was focus of media coverage because media teams reached there in minutes. However, as the story unfolded it became that most of the areas in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and NWFP suffered colossal devastation. The initial number of deaths was estimated around one thousand but as the time passed the number increased in geometrical progression. In less than 24 hours death toll crossed ten thousand. Fears were also expressed that the number would further increase.
As media and rescue teams reached the affected areas the gravity of situation became more evident. It was witnessed in certain areas that up to 75% houses were demolished. Therefore, the first priority was to pull the people out of the debris. Lack of earth moving machinery made the job most difficult and destruction of hospitals created even worst problem. Pakistan aired the SOS for international assistance, which was responded quickly and generously. Rescue and medical teams started arriving in Pakistan. As the roads were also damaged request for helicopters was also aired, which was also responded promptly. Use of helicopters helped in faster delivery of relief goods and expeditious movement of injured people to nearby hospitals.
One group emerged the most organized and prompt was Pakistan Army. Its Jawans and officers made the immediate move. It also moved heavy machinery and medical teams to most of the affected areas. The operation was fully supported by Pakistan Air Force. It also deployed aircraft to the upcountry for shifting relief goods and the operations are still going on. Army also took over the movement and distribution of relief goods.
The response from general public is also enviable. Camps for the collection of relief goods have been established throughout the country and goods in thousands of tons have been collected and dispatched to affected areas and the goods are still pouring in. Now its transportation to upcountry is posing some problems. The two issues are hike in charges by the transporters and serious traffic jams on the roads in the hilly areas. Frontier Works Organization and other supporting paraphernalia is doing excellent job in repairing damaged roads and restoring traffic. However, traffic cannot move on these roads at its normal speed due to heavy traffic and movement of long vehicles carrying relief goods.
It is also being said that truck owners have raised fares . It may be true that some of them are not behaving in a manner they should but the hike is also due to the longer duration of round trip. It is taking almost double the time as well as consuming more fuel. In order to facilitate the owners the government decided to provide fuel but the issue of loner duration remains there. It will persist till all the roads are repaired and traffic starts moving at its normal speed.
One may question the rationale behind abandoning the rescue work but it is also true that with each passing day probability of finding live people under the debris is declining. Therefore, the next phase, rehabilitation, has to begin at the earliest and at the full thrust. The most encouraging fact is that international community is contributing a lot. However, this job just cannot be completed in a few days or months and it may take even years. The top priority is to provide food and shelter. Food has been made available and its delivery in each area has to be ensured.
Reconstruction is a mammoth job because in cities like Muzaffarabad nearly 80% building have been demolished. People need cash to build their houses. According to the latest information about 5 million people have been rendered homeless. Now the most difficult task is to provide assistance to each affected family. The country has ample funds and the reconstruction must begin at the earliest. Once snowfall starts and temperature goes below freezing point it will be very difficult to save these people from frostbite. Till recently about 80% area has been accessed yet a very little is known about the remaining 20% area. Once the relief workers reach there only then it would be possible to access the level of destruction and number of casualties.
UN Under Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland recently met President Pervez Musharraf and told him that the present fleet of choppers sent from abroad and Pakistan's own fleet could simply not do the task of rescue and relief operations in the earthquake devastated areas of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and NWFP. The UN under secretary, who had earlier toured the earthquake-hit areas, stressed the importance of helicopters in the ongoing relief work which could not be ignored. Egeland asked the President that greater efforts should be made to attract attention of the US and other countries to send in more helicopters. He reminded the President about the efforts by the United States in Ache during the tsunami in which they managed to bring a hundred helicopters for rescue and relief work. These helicopters flew in from nearby US ships in the region at the time. The UN under secretary's assessment was that it would cost billions of dollars and nearly five to ten years to rebuild the devastated areas. Egeland also presided over a meeting of all UN agencies in Islamabad towards coordinating with all the UN clusters like rehabilitation, reconstruction, education, sanitation etc. along with the Pakistan government. Egeland said it was a "cruel reality" that survivors were unlikely to be found days after the massive earthquake. "First there is the search and rescue phase that is now ending," Egeland told newsmen. "It is a cruel reality. There are always some miracles, children you find two or three weeks after. But you can see days three and four when we really came to full steam that we really found people, days five and six there were much fewer and day seven we don't know if there will be anyone," he said. "But certainly the Pakistani Army is continuing to look for people," Egeland said.
His words clearly explain the quantum of work to be done and the resources needed. As stated earlier the money has already started inflowing and more funds are being promised. Therefore, the prime responsibility of the government is to commence the work at the earliest, complete the reconstruction job at the earliest and use each penny prudently. The real issue is distribution of funds at the earliest and ensuring that each family gets its due share. Initially it was feared that the earthquake would have a very serious adverse impact on Pakistan's economy. However, now it seems that the world is showing its full commitment. It is expected that more funds would flow in due course of time.
Most of the worst affected areas neither have any significant contribution in the agriculture nor the industrial sector. Therefore, the wheel of economy may continue moving but millions of people still need financial support. However, the top priority is to facilitate the affected people in rehabilitation, ensure alternative employment opportunities. Pakistanis should not forget this sad episode and the feeling prevailing at present must continue.
The nation is facing this catastrophe with courage and also contributing generously for the relief and rehabilitation of the affected people. This spirit must continue. The tragedy has united the nation and if it continues it can face any challenge with courage. The politicians and religious leaders are also responding to the need of the hour by putting aside their differences. However, it is also important to bring it on record that some elements are still behaving in the most undesirable manner. Incidences of profiteering have been reported, which demand stringent action against the culprits. Religious scholars are stressing that incidents like this is a clear warning from the God that people are not leading their lives according to the teachings of Islam.
Last but not the least, the devastation demands immediate establishment of the observatories and review of the building bylaws. According to a geologist the earth strata is going through extreme changes and absence of observatories does not allow us to construct buildings which could not withstand earthquakes of high magnitude. It is also pertinent to point out a large number of buildings being constructed in Karachi do not fully comply with the laws. The blatant violations by the builders, meager penalties and inability of the building control authorities throughout the country could lead to other tragedies in the future. The death toll in the Northern Areas may be high but could be far higher if earthquake of this magnitude hits Karachi, simply due to high-rise buildings.
All the Pakistanis stand together in this difficult hour with those who have lost near and dear ones and also rendered without shelter by the earthquake. Contributions are coming generously and relief work is also picking up speed and the spirit must continue. Government cannot do this alone. Each and every individual has to play its role. Keep up the spirit.