Thursday May 23, 2024

Remembering the earthquake

By Dr Murad Ali
October 08, 2020

The writer holds a PhD from Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the University of Malakand.

‘Are you ready’?, asked my colleague Mr Hamidul Haq when he peeped into my room in the staff hostel that was our new abode after I joined University of Malakand as a lecturer in September 2005.

When we were about to leave for our lectures on that fateful day of October 8, at 8:50am local time, we felt extremely strong jolts. The country was rocked by a quake of magnitude 7.6. The epicenter was located about 90 kilometers northeast of Islamabad. Tremors were also witnessed in other countries of South Asia: from Afghanistan and India to Central Asia.

On that day fifteen years ago, we were in and out of class rooms and offices frequently due to unabated severe aftershocks. We remained glued to the television later in the day when the news of unprecedented destruction started pouring in. The loss to human lives was enormous as over 74,000 people were killed, 70,000 injured, and more than 2.8 million people became homeless in a flash of the eye.

It was a doomsday for those affected. We cannot imagine the feelings of loneliness and despair amidst destruction, ruin and rubble. If you are a follower of well-known German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who embodied pessimism in his works, or the great Shakespeare or Thomas Hardy, you can read the feelings of Hardy’s famous character Eustacia in ‘The Return of the Native’. The lady cries, “O, the cruelty of putting me into this ill-conceived world!...I have been injured and blighted and crushed by things beyond my control! O, how hard it is of Heaven to devise such tortures for me, who have done no harm to Heaven at all”.

Indeed, Mother Nature is not always benign. And why not? We humans, limited in our knowledge, may never know. However, we will leave the philosophical interpretations of natural disasters to religious scholars and scientists, which either offer us some consolation or perhaps further agony.

Coming back to the atrociousness of the earthquake, the financial cost was substantial as several villages had disappeared and only debris was left behind. According the post-earthquake Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment survey carried out by the government of Pakistan (GoP) in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank (WB), across the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the earthquake destroyed 203,579 houses and damaged another 196,573 homes.

Similarly, 7,669 education facilities were partially or fully destroyed. As a result of such destruction to education centers, over 18,095 students and 853 teachers and educational staff died across the affected areas in KP and AJK. In addition, 574 health facilities were fully ruined or partially damaged, claiming the lives of 21 health officials on duty and injuring another 141. The overall financial cost caused by the earthquake was “estimated at approximately $5.2 billion”.

Thus, there is no doubt that this was the most devastating natural disaster in the history of the country that brought untold destruction and miseries. While today we must remember those who lost their lives, have we learnt any lessons? Are we more prepared and have we come up with better policy and planning to mitigate the cost of such disasters?

While Pakistan remains vulnerable to a range of natural and human-induced hazards and there are scores of organizations at the federal and provincial levels tasked to deal with such a situation, there was no well-coordinated and effective agency or unit to spearhead the aid efforts post-earthquake.

In order to overcome this issue and respond to the enormity of the situation, the government established a new authority to effectively deal with the monumental task of rehabilitation and reconstruction following the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake. Hence, the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) was created on October 24, 2005 to take up the task of rebuilding in the earthquake affected areas spread over 30,000 square kilometers of nine districts of KP and AJK. It must be remembered that ERRA was basically established as a time-bound entity to undertake post-2005 earthquake reconstruction initiatives but it was given a permanent structure in 2011. This was done despite the fact that the government had already made the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) via the NDMA Act 2010, which was responsible for implementing, coordinating and monitoring of disaster management at the national level.

The main impetus behind the launch of a new organization was to bring all efforts and activities related to post-earthquake needs, assessment and reconstruction under one umbrella, with a view to providing a fast track, coherent and well-coordinated approach. Thus, the primary objective behind ERRA’s creation was to have a central implementing and oversight authority that could properly coordinate all post-earthquake interventions with a broad range of national and international actors involved in the reconstruction and rehabilitation.

However, the long-term reconstruction and rehabilitation activities faced a host of challenges. On the one hand, the involvement of a large number of international donor agencies led to the completion of numerous projects in various sectors. On the other hand, engagement of too many actors in too many activities created a huge challenge for the government to properly coordinate all post-earthquake reconstruction initiatives.

Due to this fragmented and uncoordinated approach from a host of donors and aid agencies, the government has not been able to complete all activities even after the passage of fifteen years. For example, as per ERRA documents, out of the total 14,705 projects, 10,267 have been completed (about 70 per cent) while another 2,793 (19 per cent) are still ongoing and 1,645 (11 per cent) are yet to be initiated. Similarly, about 26 per cent projects in the education, 16 per cent in the power sector and 14 per cent in the health sector are yet to be launched.

A big example in this regard is the housing project of New Balakot City. After the earthquake devastated parts of the old city, a team of geologists and seismologists declared the Garlat and Balakot union councils of Balakot tehsil as a red zone and suggested the government shift the surviving families to safer places as two active seismic fault lines passing beneath could trigger an earthquake of high intensity. It was decided to rebuild a new city at a distance of 20 kilometer from the red zone. Former president Pervez Musharraf had inaugurated the New Balakot City Housing Project with an initial cost of Rs13 billion in 2007. It was stated that it would be completed in three years and would settle over 4,000 displaced families. While successive governments came and completed their tenures, the said project is still incomplete.

In April 2018, then CJP Justice Saqib Nisar had questioned where the funds worth over $5 billion provided by international donors had gone. He had also remarked that “paternal and maternal uncles of officials had been employed in ERRA” and had raised doubts over the performance of the authority. While the august CJP had left for Balakot after hearing a suo-motu case alleging embezzlement, we do not know what he achieved by personally visiting the area along with his entourage. The rest, as they say, is history.