The author is National Professor of Earth Sciences at HEC and was Vice-Chancellor of Karakoram and Peshawar Universities.
It was on the morning of Saturday October 8, 2005 that Pakistan experienced the deadliest earthquake in its history – one that devastated villages, towns and cities along a 90 km stretch in the north of Pakistan, from Allai Kohistan in the northwest to Bagh in these.
The causal fault slipped 5-8 meters, virtually throwing buildings into the air for seconds and causing a massive collapse of built structures. Balakot and Muzaffarabad, two cities with large population in the region, were caught in the line of fire of the earthquake and suffered extreme devastation. More than 90,000 people perished, most buried alive under the rubble of buildings. Those who survived were shocked, hurt, displaced and faced with the dilemma of a desperate search for their loved ones.
Amid the continuing aftershocks, the nation has had a rude awakening to the country’s dismal state of emergency preparedness.
For the first two days, the government, media and public remained focused on the collapse of the Margalla Towers in the capital, Islamabad. In the aftermath, the crisis management agencies concerned failed to take stock of the devastation and redirected relief forces to the epicentral region some 150 km northwest of the capital. The critical phase of the rescue was left to those who survived. They tried to remove the debris with their bare hands and with shovels, but to no avail. By the time the army and later rescue teams of foreign experts arrived, the screams from under the rubble had already died down.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and an investment in disaster preparedness infrastructure worth billions of rupees, Pakistan has once again failed when it comes to rescuing the victims of the Murree blizzard in the night of January 7, 2021.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has suffered multiple disasters and had mixed success in responding to the challenges. It remains a puzzle to the nation why the country’s disaster preparedness remains in a dire state of preparedness despite decades of planning and building institutions and infrastructure.
For much of its history, Pakistan has been stuck with a reactive emergency response approach to calamities. Concepts such as pre-disaster mitigation and preparedness or post-disaster response, recovery and rehabilitation remained on the sidelines. The country’s disaster management paradigm remained limited to three institutions, the Crisis Management Cell (CMC), the Department of Civil Protection and the Emergency Relief Cell and their counterparts in the provinces. The CMC has been mandated to monitor emergencies, including those caused by natural hazards, 24 hours a day through an operating room. On the morning of October 8, 2005, when the operating room was supposed to support receiving and issuing alerts regarding the location and intensity of the disaster and streamlining rescue efforts, it was found closed for renovation. The Department of Civil Defence, mandated to respond to disasters, was virtually superfluous in 2005 due to years of neglect and non-provision of resources. Essentially, by the turn of the millennium, the civilian institutions responsible for rescue operations had fallen into oblivion, leading to an exclusive reliance on the military.
After failing in the early stages of rescue during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, Pakistan put its act together on October 10, 2005. This was mainly due to the military, which after recovering from damage to its own infrastructure, has embarked on cleaning the roads. and rescue survivors stranded in the mountains. Subsequently, Pakistan managed to carry out a reasonably adequate relief and rehabilitation effort through hastily enacted institutions such as the Earthquake Relief Commission and the Earthquake Rehabilitation Authority. , with overwhelming support from the public, NGOs, INGOs, donor countries and international institutions.
The 2005 earthquake led to a critical paradigm shift in the approach to disaster management in Pakistan. The need for a comprehensive policy has become evident, encompassing modern approaches to disaster management and risk reduction, to be executed by strong institutions at federal, provincial, district and city/village levels. In 2007, Pakistan succeeded in setting up a dedicated institution, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) under the supervision of a high-level commission headed by the Prime Minister. Equivalent commissions and authorities have been established at the provincial level, with the intention of eventually devolving responsibilities to the district and town/village levels.
Pakistan significantly improved its pre-disaster mitigation capabilities. Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) weather forecasting capabilities have been updated; and a dense network of meteorological stations operates across the breadth and breadth of the country. The seismic monitoring network operated by the PMD, the Atomic Energy Commission and Wapda now includes more than a hundred seismic stations compared to less than a dozen in 2005.
Pakistan adopted a building code in 2007, which included detailed seismic provisions, which were recently updated by the Pakistan Engineering Council and awaiting formal adaptation by the Ministry of Housing and Public Works. Universities carry out important research programs focusing on detailed hazard and risk assessment and testing of disaster risk reduction strategies.
Despite these very significant developments over the past decade and a half, disaster response on the ground remains as pathetic as it was during the 2005 earthquake.
Although it is known that in the end it is the victims who are the first responders, Pakistan’s preference has been an extremely cumbersome disaster management system comprising commissions and authorities. These are carriers of good intentions devolved one day to the actors at the community level. After the initial fanfare, these became as slow and inefficient as all the other commissions and authorities housed in the grand buildings lining Constitution Avenue in Islamabad.
The NDMA, the main disaster management institution in the country, is more of a channel for temporary assignments of senior officials. Another area in which this institution and its provincial counterparts have excelled is the development of sophisticated strategic plans, guidelines and manuals through consultants at the expense of international donors. The Islamabad High Court, in its recent proceedings following the Murree tragedy, rightly remarked that the NDMA (and its provincial counterparts) were unable to hold their government commission meetings during years, in flagrant contradiction to their constitutional mandates.
The most critical neglect of these institutions is their failure to establish some semblance of a disaster management system at the district level, let alone that of the town or village. The absence of an effective search and rescue mechanism at the community level is the main reason for the loss of an unprecedented number of precious lives each time the country is hit by a disaster.
The successes of village volunteers in early warning, search and rescue operations during flash floods and outbursts of glacial lakes emerging each year from Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan provide insight into the effectiveness of community response to disasters. The model developed by Aga Khan Habitat Services (formerly FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance Pakistan) in the northern regions is being replicated by many countries in Central Asia and Africa, but failed to attract the attention of the NDMA and of their provincial counterparts.
In short, Pakistan needs to revamp its disaster management system with a bottom-up approach. Institutions like Rescue 1122, despite the failure of the Murree disaster, hold more promise than the white elephant institutions of Constitution Avenue. Rescue 1122 at the city/tehsil level, blended with trained volunteers at the village/neighborhood/mohalla level can evolve into a workforce capable of effective disaster response.
With climate change becoming a stark reality, extreme hydro-meteorological events of unprecedented frequency and intensity are expected to hit the country more often than before. Pakistan cannot afford to be complacent and after years of planning and investment, it must hold those responsible for negligence and disaster preparedness accountable to the nation.