Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Disasters in Pakistan

Since Pakistan is situated on fault-lines and besides being vulnerable to tectonic movement, is also within the range of tsunamis, and other natural disasters along with the man made ones, it is extremely necessary to have a comprehensive disaster mitigation program, early warning systems, awareness of the vulnerability of populations to different disasters, to post disaster response including relief, early recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. There are of course several problems and situations that vary case to case, depending on the disaster, location as well as prevalent climatic conditions in the particular region that needs to be addressed.

When Pakistan was struck by the October earthquake, there was no relevant authority to address the disaster. But by October 24, 2005, the Government of Pakistan was able to establish ERRA – Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority with the help of the United Nations and the Pakistan Army.

Earthquake - 2005

The October 8, 2005 Earthquake measuring 7.6 on Richter Scale in the Northern Areas and Azad Jammu and Kashmir Pakistan, has been an important lesson for the development sector, especially architects, engineers and planners. It was a real life case-study for not only learning but experimentation and documentation as well, since there was a huge influx of foreign development organisations, especially the United Nations’ - UNHABITAT, UNDP, UNICEF etc, and other international organisations like, Emergency Architects, Aga Khan Development Network, Handicap International and so on.

Relief & Recovery (Problems)

One major hindrance during the recovery phase of the earthquake was lack of information. The government only had one functional institute in this regard, and that was the army, which at that time was itself under stress due to the undisclosed heavy human loss they had to suffer because of the disaster. Nevertheless, the army did manage to give a prompt response and tried to reach as many locations as possible, despite that it was winter and the conditions were harsh, especially at high altitudes in the Karakorum Ranges, going as far as using soldiers as mules for getting rations to the affected families. While discussing the Karakorum Ranges, one must keep in mind that there are several nomadic tribes living at high altitudes, and at times the exact location of their abode is not known. So, many times it was problematic to reach a specific area.

The army and volunteers were involved in getting over rations, winterised tents and retrieving people from the debris of the destroyed buildings simultaneously, but there were several hindrances apart from continuous snowfall, like unavailability of appropriate tools and machinery, as well as access to affected areas due to landslides, accumulated snow etc.

Building any sturdy structures for shelter in the beginning was impossible due to the aftershocks. However, as the earth settled and ground oscillations reduced to almost none, other problems were also faced by the relief workers, like, apathy, fear, paranoia and a general feeling of fatalism. The affectess feared going inside any building. There was stress and fear about remaining under a heavy roof, whether it was made of tin, wood or concrete. People generally preferred staying in a tent, but that was not very effective protection against the extreme cold climate, with frequent snowfall, sleet and rain. Later on lack of technical knowledge also proved to be a hindrance in remote areas where NGOs and international organisations did not have access in the beginning.

Rehabilitation & Reconstruction

There were outbreaks of diarrhoea and other ailments like malaria and typhoid due to inadequate sanitation and unavailability of clean water, ruptured septic tanks and sewage pits, as well as rotting organic matter in the debris. For this purpose several makeshift latrines were erected by organisations like OXFAM and UNDP keeping in mind the cultural bounds. And mineral water was also provided with the relief kits.

Another major problem was to cater to the people who were handicapped in the disaster. The trauma of the patients and accommodation of their needs within limited resources was something that had to be addressed on an urgent basis, for which organisations like the Handicap International mobilised their workers.

As winter passed, there were several proposals by different organisations regarding the type of construction that should be followed. Designs by ERRA, NESPAK, NSET, UNHABITAT, Architecture de l’urgencies etc were circulated for the benefit of the locals. Several model houses were also constructed, while contracts for institutional buildings like schools, colleges, government offices, hospitals were given to large companies under ERRA and UNHABITAT’s supervision.

NDMA - 2007

Later on in 2007, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was created as an executive arm of the National Disaster Management Commission (NDMC), which has been established under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister. There are Provincial Disaster Management Authorities under the NDMA in all four provinces to cater to natural and man-made disasters both.

Revisiting Kashmir - 2009

June, 2009 while re-visiting Bagh and Rawlakot in Kashmir, I found that the reconstruction process for the larger buildings was still in the process. It has been four years to be precise since the earthquake, but the reconstruction phase has not finished yet. Temporary shelters and latrines are still around, and in some places, tents are still in use as well.

Apparently, the temporary shelters have becomes a permanent feature for the time being. Even if people have built their houses, they still have tents erected in their field for purposes ranging from storing wood, to grain, to using the tent for visitors and guests.

Several new and much larger concrete houses were visible on the slopes of the surrounding mountains, which mostly belong to the affluent people of the city. The poor people rebuilt their houses using the same old traditional methods due to several reasons, one of them being unavailability of funds. Several people disclosed that the last instalment due for their house was not disbursed by the authorities for one reason or another.

The situation near the river called “Maal” is sad, as several crushers and mixers are placed along the river. The sewerage also appears to be connected directly with the river as several NGOs and orgnaisations still have their offices on the river banks.

The condition of the roads was dilapidated, especially in Bagh; however the roads in Rawlakot were comparatively better. A local driver Iqbal said that bad roads have become a feature for the region. It should be mentioned that during the year 2006, the roads were well kempt despite heavy rains and landslides. According to Iqbal, the reason roads were better previously while international NGOs were around was there was less corruption.

The economic condition of Bagh seems to have improved tremendously, as several people, who a few years ago only used to walk to their destination, owned cars and four wheel drives like Parados and Land Cruisers. Several new outsourcing companies have been established in Bagh and new shopping malls are springing up instead of the old rundown bazaars.

However, only time would verify the quality of the materials as well as construction techniques used for the new buildings.

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