When disaster struck

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHAT lessons did Saturday’s earthquake in the north of the country carry for us? In the initial shocking days there was not much to learn and much more to mourn. There were moments of hope as well when the efforts of the rescue teams were rewarded and a survivor was pulled out — like the smiling infant whose picture was splashed across newspapers all over the country.

The images of death and destruction made one sad. With television channels vying with one another to give a better and more innovative coverage of the events in the north, the tragedy numbed the nation.

Thousands and thousands were killed — at first the authorities were cautious in releasing casualty figures — but as the extent of the devastation unfolded, the death toll also rose. The latest official estimates speak of 20,000 dead and 47,000 injured. Then there were thousands who were living away from their families to earn their livelihood. Their agony was indescribable — with the communications in shambles there was no way for them to get in touch with their relatives back home.

It will take time for the dust to settle, and mercifully the relief operations are picking up, though more efforts are needed to coordinate the massive rescue work that has been mobilized. The normal rhythm of life will come much later for those who have suffered or have been made homeless. For those who have lost their loved ones, life may never be the same again.

As we come to grip with the shock, the lessons will start to sink in. The first to strike one is the humanism of mankind. Contrary to what many religious leaders were saying endlessly on television — that the earthquake was God’s wrath on man for his wrongdoings — the people of Pakistan did not emerge the sinful lot they are made out to be. They rose to the challenge and responded with generosity to help their less fortunate compatriots. Crowds flocked to the impromptu camps set up by various relief agencies in all cities and flooded them with goods and donations.

Although the opposition parties initially tried to politicize the event and launched a tirade against the government for its “crisis management failure” and its “failure to carry out relief activities”, it has come to see the folly of making political capital of human misery. Hence, the ARD has now announced that October 12 that was to be observed as a day of protest is now to be a day of prayers for the dead.

The government’s response may be described as being as best as could be in the circumstances. With no preparedness for meeting such natural calamities, the administration could have done no better. There was a lot of activity on the scene of the disaster. Yet the rescue operation was slow and those affected failed to get prompt relief. This was not surprising in view of the absence of trained personnel and the necessary equipment. With the roads and bridges in many places having collapsed the worst affected areas were rendered inaccessible.

As a result, some of them, such as Muzaffarabad, received no help until Monday. The relief fund which was set up by the prime minister with an initial contribution of one billion rupees was enhanced to five billion rupees within a day when the magnitude of the disaster became clear.

The government’s appeal for help brought aid in the form of cash, goods and rescue teams pouring in from abroad. A number of countries, especially in the neighbourhood, responded magnificently and extended a helping hand. They were most welcome since Pakistan’s own resources to cope with a disaster of this magnitude seemed inadequate.

But three aspects were of special significance. One was the open-ended offer of assistance that was offered by India and accepted by Pakistan. Although initially President Musharraf had been hesitant about accepting the offer, citing “sensitivities” in the matter, better sense prevailed. Many of the areas in Azad Kashmir are more approachable from the Indian-held Kashmir side of the LoC which was also affected by the earthquake but not as intensely.

The logistics of the operation have not yet been disclosed but the two sides have allowed the helicopters of the other to fly close to the LoC which they normally did not permit. This is certain that this has been possible only because of the changed political climate of today in the wake of the composite dialogue between the two countries. This gesture from both sides will be long remembered and one hopes that it will have a positive impact on the ongoing peace dialogue.

In fact, Indian and Pakistani soldiers have reportedly been cooperating with one another on both sides of the LoC in exchanging intelligence about how best to get medical help to the worst affected victims. They have been communicating by radio to facilitate movement to the distressed areas.

The second notable event was the demand by the Jamaat-i-Islami that the government should reject America’s offer of assistance, because it was no more than peanuts. With Pakistan’s relief operation already being hampered on account of communication difficulties, the helicopters offered by the US have eased somewhat the pressure on logistic facilities. The Jamaat also urged that the armed forces should not distribute the aid in the affected areas since they had lost the confidence of the people.

How should one respond to leaders whose compassion for fellow humans is minimal? For them, national honour dictates that we reject American aid because it is too little, even if that costs us more lives in the process. It is rightly said that times of calamities bring out the best or the worst in people, especially in politicians.

Thirdly, we need to adopt a rational approach to natural calamities and how to manage them. It is plain that in the short term it is not always possible to prevent the erratic workings of many awesome natural elements. Earthquakes, floods and hurricanes have affected mankind since times immemorial, though their frequency and intensity have increased lately, thanks to human anti-ecological activities that have led to global warming. Thus the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction says that in 2003 nearly 254 million people were affected by natural disasters. This was nearly thrice as many as in 1990. Nearly 83,000 were killed in 2003 compared to 53,000 13 years ago.

Asia alone has encountered a major earthquake practically every year since 2001: Gujarat (India), Bam (Iran), the tsunami and Saturday’s tremblor. If we can’t prevent them we can at least make concerted efforts to prevent colossal loss of life and mitigate the sufferings of those affected. Early warning systems work for floods and hurricanes but not for earthquakes. But the redeeming feature is that earthquakes do not kill people, it is the collapsing structures which prove to be fatal. By making buildings earthquake-proof and resistant a lot can be done to save lives.

It is also important that rescue operations are speedy to save lives. Pakistan’s experience shows that the country was caught unawares in that it did not even have a disaster management mechanism/ strategy in place. As a result the initial lack of coordination led to confusion and duplication of efforts or paralysis. This would not have happened if the Disaster Management Agency that has been on the cards for sometimes now had actually been in place. Its formation should now be expedited and a strategy worked out as a matter of urgency.

It is also time that an international coordinating unit was set up — may be the International Committee of the Red Cross could be assigned the task — to coordinate relief efforts by governments and charities which traditionally respond generously on such occasions. But without any coordination their work is duplicated or delayed and fails to have the impact it should.