Sultan M Hali
TWELVE years since the devastating earthquake of October 8, 2005, one still shudders, remembering the destruction caused by the catastrophe. There are numerous lessons to be learnt and homage must be paid to those who provided yeoman service in extending rescue, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction services.
The Pakistani government’s official death toll stood at 87,350, although it is estimated that the actual death toll was over 120,000. Approximately 138,000 were injured and over 3.5 million were rendered homeless. According to government figures, 19,000 children died in the earthquake, most of them in widespread collapses of school buildings. The earthquake affected more than 500,000 families. In addition, approximately 250,000 farm animals died due to collapse of stone barns, and more than 500,000 large animals required immediate shelter from the harsh winter. It is estimated that more than 780,000 buildings were either destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and many more were rendered unusable for extended periods of time.
The people of Pakistan deserve maximum credit for their benevolence as ordinary citizens rushed with supplies to alleviate the pain of their brothers and sisters in distress. Caravans from Karachi to Khyber attempted to travel to the affected areas in Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by trucks, buses, private and hired vehicles. Young doctors, students, volunteers even housewives wanted to chip in. Foreign governments, humanitarian agencies and benevolent organizations also rushed in trained personnel with rescue equipment to save those trapped under the rubble, bury the dead, provide medical aid and later help reconstruct the homes, schools, hospitals, bridges and other essential buildings.
One organization that stands out in its selfless service is the armed forces of Pakistan. All three services contributed immensely not only in rescue operations but also in relief and rehabilitation. Pakistan Army, by virtue of its size and resources, did the bulk of the task although a sizable number of casualties owing to the earthquake were from the army contingent deployed in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. One major responsibility was coordinating the foreign as well as domestic rescue and relief operations. U.S. military and Royal Air Force helicopters, personnel and equipment arrived in no time from neighbouring Afghanistan. Brotherly countries of China, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran and others rushed their contingents to aid the earthquake victims. Without coordinating the effort, there would have been chaos and commotion.
The affected areas were divided into sectors and the organizations extending support were allocated areas of responsibility. The same was true for volunteers, who could have choked the arteries of communication and impeded the rescue and relief work. The media, which insists on having a front seat in covering the events, also had to be assisted as well as managed lest it fell into harm’s way or took undue risks, hampering relief operations. The ISPR coordinated media efforts and undertook the daunting task of airlifting media personnel on the US and Pakistani helicopters flying to and from the disaster areas.
Foreign aid also started pouring in through donors and had to be managed prudently lest it was misused or misappropriated. A reconstruction authority called Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) was set up and managed by the army. It was established as an independent, autonomous, and federal institution of Pakistan tasked and made responsible for the operational planning, coordinating, monitoring, and regulating the reconstruction and rehabilitation operations in the earthquake affected areas of the country.
The organization continues its operations with the mission of “Converting adversity into opportunity” by reconstructing the lost and destroyed facilities with the motto of “Build Back Better.” The main role of ERRA is macro planning, developing selected strategies, financing, project approval and monitoring and evaluation. Additionally, ERRA ensures the required coordination and provides facilitation to implementing partners, whereas physical implementation of the projects is the responsibility of respective governments.
A number of lessons are learnt from the tragedy. Awareness of the construction of buildings and houses which can withstand earthquakes and setting up crisis management centres became imperative. National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was instituted on October 24, 2007, in the wake of the earthquake to deal formally with future disasters. It was set up as an autonomous and constitutionally established federal authority mandated to deal with whole spectrum of disasters and their management in the country. The natural disaster caused widespread devastation but brought out the best in humanity.
—The writer is retired PAF Group Captain and a TV talk show host.
Sultan M Hali