Mirpur relief ordeal


Shahzeb Khan

RESCUE workers are still digging through the rubble of 5.8 earthquake in Mirpur, looking for survivors. Many people are still without shelter. Hospitals are overburdened. The authorities and aid agencies continue to struggle to reach affected areas over damaged transportation routes. Even after some days, news reports about the disaster zone (mainly Mirpur and Jhelum) are still unclear. Current death toll remains at 38. Reports of injuries conflict around 700. According to a source on ReliefWeb, 1,600 houses were destroyed and 7,000 were damaged. Updates are not regular. Authorities are still acquiring the full scope of the disaster. Recurrent aftershocks continue to terrorize people. On 26th September, a magnitude 4.7 aftershock caused a second calamity in the affected area, injuring 67. The number of homeless also increased. Fortunately, it seems nobody was killed. Still, this is a serious situation. The large number of wounded from the small tremor could have been entirely avoided. The earthquake of 24 September was a sudden disaster, striking out of nowhere and catching people by surprise. Afterwards, though, people were surrounded by damaged structures and knew that aftershocks are going to happen. The people who were injured on 26th would all have been fine had they not been around fragile structures. The inability to identify hazardous buildings, to communicate to people in the disaster area, and to get people into proper shelters compounded the hazard.
Seismic activity coinciding with bad weather and the onslaught of winter makes shelter a vital necessity. Rainfall is creating miserable conditions for the people who have no shelter and must spend the night outside. October is cold in Kashmir and will get colder onwards. Except for a few areas in which most buildings were destroyed, shelter is available but dangerous because of building damage and aftershocks. Even if effected buildings do not come down, small pieces of debris can detach from the ceilings and walls and be heavy enough to break people’s backs if dropped on the head, so even the thickest helmet does not protect. Buildings that have a lot of room and are guaranteed to remain undamaged because of sturdiness must be identified quickly. Even dozens can huddle in a safe space, until the aftershock risk is no more or better shelter has arrived. People can place small sturdy structures in their damaged houses as shields from falling rubble, so if the walls and ceilings give way, they will be slanted over the mound. Charpoys, tables, or wood can be utilized during indoor time. Surely, such structures would have protected the 67 people from being injured by the aftershock. People can make their situation better using what they already have with them, as long as they know what to do and how to organize for it. Circumstances are the best coach but foresight is necessary in disaster management. It is always best that people are thoroughly versed about their disaster risks. But if a disaster strikes and they need knowledge, communication becomes vital. Connectivity has been greatly hampered in Mirpur, means of telecommunication are down. Yet, announcement systems from a mosque minaret can be used. Fliers can be dropped from aircraft. The packaging of the relief goods can have instructions written and figures printed about what people should do and watch out for information delivery requires low cost.
Potable water is needed. Damaged transportation routes make delivering water a challenge. Damaged water systems mix water with dirt yet people quench thirst from unsafe water. Rain is natural delivery of water and communities should be taught to harvest rain water through makeshift arrangement. Water is needed not only for drinking but for medical use also. Drinking dirty water is ok because digestive system is made to withstand contamination to some extent, but for washing wounds or medical equipment, clean water is must. The inability to move people and goods is the main issue that the affected area faces. Roads have sustained massive damage, as have a few bridges. Pakistan Army is busy restoring road networks. Armies are well suited to this type of work, as well as to disaster management in general. There are some educational videos on constructing makeshift transportation routes, made by armies during WW2. These describe soldiers building temporary routes from raw material found around them. Affected communities should be taught such know-how.
Soldiers and army engineers produce results, but local people must be involved in the huge amount of work needed for the earthquake relief. Organizing people in an effective manner is called CBDRM, Community-Based Disaster Risk Management. CBDRM usually requires preparation beforehand. Implementing it spontaneously when a disaster has already struck will be difficult, but let us try it in Mirpur. PPLDM was founded to promote innovative, people-led disaster risk management to strengthen state’s hands. In the aftermath of the devastating quake of 24 September, 2019, with the aftershocks, medical needs, and lack of food, water, and shelter, community mobilization has to be done on the spur of the moment. Speedy communication is vital. All those who are reading this should share and spread its advice. Affected communities plus the emergency responders need guidance. The calamity in Mirpur is a crisis not only for Pakistan but also for Britain. Mirpur has high rate of migrants to Britain. A lot of people in Mirpur have dual British-Pakistani nationality. This should create an incentive for Britain to get involved in the earthquake response. Coverage of the crisis is one of the areas we need to improve. Unless people know all about the situation in the earthquake zone, how can they deliver the right help? Transparency of news regarding disaster is the first step in disaster management. Glossing over bad news is criminal and should be treated as such by the penal code. Here, condition in India-occupied Kashmir raises questions. The damage from earthquake there cannot even be ascertained because of blackout. Imran Khan should bring this matter to international attention.
—The writer is Director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management.

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