Earthquake should be used to repair Indo-Pak fissures

Gulf News, October 12, 2005

The massive 7.6 intensity earthquake that rocked Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India on Saturday is undoubtedly a great human tragedy.

It is also an occasion for governments in the region to set aside their differences and deal together with the devastation. Shockwaves from the earthquake covered the 625-mile stretch between Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi.

But the area affected severely by the earthquake comprised mountains covering the Hindukush, Karakoram and Himalayan ranges. In addition to the mountains’ heights, access to the earthquake victims has become more difficult because of shattered bridges, cracked roads and landslides.

Pakistan has been hit hardest by this calamity. The cities of Muzaffarabad in Pakistan controlled Kashmir and Balakot in the Northwest Frontier Province have been reduced to rubble.

Casualties, already estimated to be over 30,000, could rise further as the full extent of the earthquake’s devastation becomes known. Many of the victims are likely to be in small villages, the population of which is not fully recorded and may be difficult to reach.

A much less intense earthquake in December 1974 that hit Pakistan’s northern areas, including some regions damaged again by the latest tremor, caused widespread damage. Almost 100 villages and small towns were flattened. An international rescue effort and worldwide fund-raising ensued.

By the time rescue crews reached remote villages and towns and the casualties were actually counted, 5,200 people were found to have died, thousands injured and a quarter of a million rendered homeless.

This time, too, in addition to burying the dead and locating survivors, massive humanitarian assistance will be needed to rehabilitate those affected by the natural disaster. Rebuilding destroyed towns and villages, reviving their economy and planning for the future would require far more resources than Pakistan can muster on its own.

President Bush’s announcement of US help for the earthquake victims and the generous assistance provided by Britain and the UAE, among others, reflects the international community’s humanitarian concern over the consequences of this natural disaster.

As was seen during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that destroyed New Orleans, even the world’s greatest military and economic power was not fully equipped with the unanticipated fury of nature. Countries such as Pakistan, where one-third of the population lives on less than $1 (Dh3.67) a day cannot be expected to deal with the consequences of a large-scale emergency without considerable international assistance.

Pakistan has asked for, and should get, help in the form of transport helicopters, blankets, food supplies and medicines.

Disaster relief

India’s offer of help should help the stalled peace process in South Asia and should be reciprocated by a Pakistani offer of assistance to Indian victims in areas where Pakistanis might have better access.

The US willingness to allow its military personnel, stationed in Afghanistan, to assist with disaster relief in Pakistan should similarly be appreciated. Given the scale of the disaster, humanitarian considerations should rump political ones.

While mobilising manpower and resources to deal with the earthquake’s aftermath, Pakistanis should not overlook the structural shortcomings that have exacerbated the destruction caused by this act of nature.

Wide swathes of Pakistan controlled Kashmir, the Northwest Frontier Province and the Northern Areas had no first aid infrastructure.

Apparently no lessons were learnt from the 1974 earthquake and there was no disaster relief contingency plan in place for an earthquake of greater intensity.

Even in the federal capital, Islamabad, it took soldiers two hours and 45 minutes to reach the collapsed Margalla Towers, notwithstanding the building’s central and accessible location. There was only one crane in all of Islamabad to deal with the massive debris of steel reinforced concrete.

Compare the army’s reaction time in reaching Margalla Towers with its swift execution of the October 1999 coup d’etat that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power and Pakistan’s fundamental problem becomes apparent. Then, army units moved swiftly to take control of Islamabad’s key buildings within 35 minutes of Musharraf’s removal from his position as army chief by the civilian prime minister.

The army claimed that its swift movement was made possible by its preparedness for various contingencies. Quite clearly, the Pakistani establishment prepares for political contingencies but not for natural disasters.

Perhaps it is time to include exercises for dealing with adversities such as last Saturday’s earthquake in the military’s repertoire of contingencies.