2005 Earthquake: What lies ahead

Ever three weeks have passed and Pakistan is still weighted down by the debris of the October 8 earthquake. The human tragedy has been beyond belief and the suffering continues despite a national outpouring of grief and solidarity. Meanwhile, the larger question on the role of the state in relief and disaster management has been hotly debated in the media and will inevitably continue to be reflected upon.

This is a matter of seminal importance, as even the cumulative results of volunteerism and effective nongovernmental actors cannot, in the final analysis, replace the role of the state in relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Experience also suggests that international pledges will translate into concrete assistance only when state agencies have undertaken effective planning, sorted out the institutional arrangements and demonstrated local and national capacity for a long term rehabilitation operation.

The response

Notwithstanding the paramount role of the State in the management of this crisis, the people of Pakistan living within and outside the country demonstrated an exemplary ability to rally together in grief-stricken times. In fact, the earthquake proved nothing short of a catalyst: national spirit prevailed and citizens were able to rise above ethnic, provincial, religious and sectarian divisions that have otherwise plagued the polity for past few decades. Within the first week of the tragedy, Rs 5 billion were contributed to the President’s Relief Fund and much more came forth in donations to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), charities and other relief mechanisms including the unprecedented array of voluntary services. Media images of expatriate doctors camping out in harsh climatic conditions and volunteers carrying injured people on their backs have been heart warming. In a sense, this has reaffirmed the otherwise dwindling cause of citizenship. The ultimate illustration of this was the unsung hero – a tandoorwallah from the Sargodha district – who remained at the site of the fallen Margalla Towers until the end of relief operations and succeeded in recovering dead and alive without the gadgetry or pomposity of many others around. Many more stories of this kind are being chronicled, pointing towards the humanity that mercifully still abounds in our collective existence.

The role of the electronic media in our lives has also facilitated this response. Never before could local, on-the-ground information reach the millions it did last month. The argument of desensitisation aside, awareness has found a new meaning in recent times. Whereas the attention span of the international media has proved to be mercurial in this particular case, local television and radio channels continue to play a vital role in reporting. In fact, the state agencies are acutely cognizant of this situation and have had to respond in a far swifter manner than they are designed to. Try any local TV channel and the implied pressure being faced by the state of Pakistan will become immediately clear. More often than not, it has to not only respond but also respond well against overt and implicit criticism of the initial response to the tragedy. But it is also true that in the immediate aftermath, the scale of the disaster was not known to many given that communications were severely disrupted; and the unprepared public sector agencies were also hit by the turn of events in equal measure.

Positive signals

A centralised formal rehabilitation body – the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (ERRA) – in addition to the Federal Relief Commission have now been put into place. The leadership appears strong and a semblance of coordination appears to be occurring. Recent measures to curb looters and other ‘miscreants’ – to use the colonial diction – are moving in the right direction. The estimate of $5 billion required for reconstruction will perhaps be revised upwards, as early damage assessments suggest. There have been strong pronouncements regarding the government taking care of affected children, rebuilding 500,000 houses and restoring infrastructure.

Thus far, the plight of the approximately 3 million affectees is of prime significance. Adverse weather conditions, shortage of tents, medical supplies and the difficulties inherent in reaching all the victims have consumed all the civil-military resources, and rightly so. Ultimately, it would be a bigger disaster if those who were spared by the initial natural calamity were not saved. Urgent appeals from the United Nations have had some impact, and even though NATO’s response was criticised, its unusual response to become involved in emergency situation needs to be welcomed nonetheless. The quantum of total foreign assistance is still below the required level but Islamic countries seem to be making up for the shortfall.

All these positive signals cannot unravel the overriding question that pertains to long term rehabilitation. The challenges ahead are overwhelming and the record of public sector is at best too mixed to warrant a clear, confident answer to this conundrum. Before examining the challenges here is a story worth relating.

Armenia revisted

The December 1988 earthquake in Armenia was equal in its intensity and the damage it caused. Jonathan Steele of The Guardian has revisited this disaster in the context of Pakistan. Writing on October 19, he notes: “What lessons could Pakistan learn from Armenia’s sputtering reconstruction process, which, 17 years later, has 3,500 families in the city still living in ‘temporary accommodation’ – a euphemism for shacks, metal containers and disused railway wagons?”

This is indeed a telling story since the Armenian reconstruction started with a bang, with many international players jumping in to rebuild hospitals and schools – only to abandon the project when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. With the independence of Armenia and the subsequent crunch in resources, not much was done until the international agencies re-intervened to introduce demand led recovery for the housing sector, a move that yielded mixed results. Quoting the ‘Urban Institute,’ the Washington-based think-tank Steele cites the following lessons for Pakistan: reconstructing on the old sites works as people tend to return to their ‘experienced’ communities; local climate matters since the design of reconstruction will assure its appropriateness and relevance for the victims; accountability and honesty in relief operations is essential; sound economic recovery for the people, who have to be gainfully employed, is an absolute must; lastly, the importance of stress counselling cannot be underplayed as itenables people to resume, take charge of their lives and overcome the trauma. Armenia did not do all that well on this front and Steele expresses doubts about this happening in Pakistan.

Noting the long process of recovery in the Armenian case, alarm bells ring concerning the Pakistani ability to respond given the huge challenge of restoring 3 million lives and livelihoods. In the case of Armenia, the shelter-less were not even a fraction of the number we have to deal with; and after 17 years, the issue has not been resolved. More recently, Indonesia is still coping with the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami disaster, which again holds some lessons for us.

The Aceh story

While the tsunami affected several countries, in Indonesia’s province of Aceh alone, the total death toll is estimated to lie at over 165,000. Of the survivors, over 550,000 people were rendered homeless. For the past several months, only the urgent needs of the emergency situation have been met. Reconstruction in any meaningful way has yet to take off. Various livelihood restoration schemes are underway but the major issues of land titles, housing and basic services remain uphill challenges. Reportedly, hundreds of thousands of land parcels were affected by the tsunami, of which only thousands were secured by title deeds. Coordination amongst the dozens of agencies is still a nightmare and the logistical complexity of rehabilitation is compounded by the bottlenecks in government machinery and the weak capacities of the local authorities. During the relief operations, cases of corruption and leakages were reported by the media, as is the case with many relief operations.

However, the government is now attempting to address these challenges by providing for special features in the reconstruction process, such as community involvement, complaints and grievance redress mechanisms and transparency in procurement. Most children are back at school through temporary arrangements but employment and housing nevertheless remain a major challenge.

It is worth noting that the tropical climate of Aceh favours relief and reconstruction that may not be replicable in places like the AJK and other districts of northern Pakistan.

The challenges ahead

Resource mobilisation:

The costs of reconstruction are increasing each day as the impact of disaster becomes clearer. International assistance has been sought by the government; however, before making the inevitable choice of borrowing, domestic resource mobilisation can be reviewed. The current public sector development program amounts to Rs 272 billion and a sizeable portion of it can be redirected – provided political will is shown in this case. At least $1 billion (or Rs 60 billion) can be generated if the economic managers were to undertake a creative review with the participation of the provincial governments. The citizenry should not be under-estimated as they have proved to be fully alert to the situation and the spirit of sacrifice is evident. The government must display leadership in making the best of this situation in order to generate resources. However, it will have to first demonstrate its commitment by cutting down on wasteful and avoidable expenditures. Let the legislators’ development funds with unclear results be diverted towards this effort.

National and regional coordination: If the experience of the tsunami is to be the guide, then effective coordination tops the list of the rehabilitation agenda. Multiple agencies are already working in the disaster hit areas; channeling their work will be an uphill task in the long term. Also, it will be important to prevent the process from becoming bureaucratised by stifling private and citizen sectors through regulations. Finding the right balance will be essential. At present, hundreds of actors are trying to set up tent villages and the visitors in the area have often complained about the apparent lack of coordination. Similarly, international and local NGOs, as well as bilateral and multilateral donors will need steering and the government will have to assume the lead in this process.

Local capacity: The AJK and in part the NWFP government machinery has suffered tremendously and is stretched with the emergency relief burden. In fact, the local institutional capacity will need to be built up for effective long term relief. The quality and quantity of human resources will need to be bolstered immediately for the rehabilitation to succeed. Centralised operations notwithstanding, their value at the policy level will not deliver if there is no local capacity to manage it. In particular, procurement systems will have to be foolproof in order to avoid business as usual and to achieve the quality earthquake-proof structures that are being highlighted in the aftermath of the disaster.

Land record for housing: Whereas the foremost priority will be to fully restore infrastructure, the more critical area of concern will be housing as shelter will be a pressing issue given the climatic conditions. Herein lies the explosive post-disaster nightmare: most land records have been destroyed or affected, thereby causing a legal and institutional hiatus. Even in the best of times our land record capacities are questionable, given the institutional decay; our current situation will be challenge requiring an extraordinary response. In particular, disputes would need to be managed and there will be no other way than to develop community-based, inexpensive dispute resolution mechanisms, rather than relying on formal systems that will not deliver given the pressing timeframe. Certifying and restoring original possession for land consolidation is a complex process and takes ages even in normal times. Further, land-grabbing will need to be tackled, and the widows and orphans will require specific assistance in the process.

Resettlement: Within the smaller settlements, villages and hamlets, private structures can be reconstructed with the provision of credit and public buildings can be designed and built after rapid assessment of topography, community needs and access. The major settlements will need to be rebuilt on the previous locations after due topographical assessments and by providing incentives for the erstwhile dwellers to take charge of this task with technical guidance from local state agencies. This will generate employment and spur local economic growth.

Environment: Environmentalists have already raised the alarm that further deforestation of the AJK and NWFP for resettlement will lead to another ecological disaster. It has been noted in various studies that deforestation, rain and melting snow create an imbalance on the earth’s plates, thus making the incidence and impact of earthquakes far greater. During the recent earthquake, the impact was most severe where deforestation had taken place and massive landslides occurred on existing road networks. This is again related to the long term effects of the cutting down of trees in the affected areas. Further, deforestation around the Jehlum River – the catchment area of Mangla Lake – will also affect the Mangla Dam project. Global warming has already been linked to Hurricanes Katrina and Stan. The new Murree development project should be dropped altogether: there can be little debate now about its relevance.

Inclusion and transparency: Last but not least, long term results will not be achieved without the inclusion of all players – national, regional and local – in the planning and reconstruction process. In the task that lies ahead, the parliament – that currently appears to be making loud noises and passing resolutions – will need to be taken on board fully as will the media and NGOs. Further, the procurement, utilisation of international assistance and domestic relief resources must be made fully transparent in order to establish credibility of the state and dilute the prevailing cynicism that might become a national trait if not addressed. Effective anti-corruption measures will have to be taken to demonstrate that money is targeting the needy and being well-spent.

All of this requires vision, leadership and broad based decision making. However, if the state and citizens were to rise to these challenges, there is no reason why we cannot succeed. There is an urgent need to avoid the disasters that may occur if we do not rise to this extraordinary occasion.