It was Saturday, 8:50AM, a normal school day, when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake shook the northern parts of Pakistan. Nearly 20,000 children died while attending classes. In total, about 85,000 people died, another 140,000 injured and 3.5 million became homeless as 0.6 million houses were severely damaged. This year, as we commemorate the 15th anniversary, we must address this question — who was responsible for these colossal losses? Was it the earthquake or the poor-quality construction or both? Those who think it was the earthquake must reconsider this. Why some buildings collapsed and others didn’t? Why most school buildings constructed by the government flattened while most privately built structures stood unscathed? Most probably, corrupt officials, not the earthquake were responsible for most losses.
Of course, Pakistan has accomplished a lot in the last 15 years. We developed public policy, improved legislation on disaster management, created better management structures and built skills. However, enforcement of building codes and disaster risk reduction remains poor despite many mega-disasters since 2005.
To understand this void, I have been visiting Balakot almost every year. Our NGO, Pattan, established the first tent village for the displaced families at the right bank of River Kunhar, Balakot, in the earthquake’s aftermath. In 2015, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the earthquake, Pattan conducted a study to assess the degree and quality of reconstruction and recovery in light of the “Build-Back-Better” policy. We interviewed over 300 households (38% of them had lost one or more family members) at 20 locations and held focus group discussions with stakeholders.
The study’s findings were unnerving as 65% respondents reported they had not built their houses and shops according to the earthquake-resistant design of ERRA, their economic situation had worsened and reciprocity amongst community members had declined. While 77% were likely to feel unsafe from future earthquakes because the government did not take concrete measures to reduce disaster risks. Over 75% respondents were highly likely to praise the army, NGOs and donors for their timely and generous support after the disaster. Only a tiny percentage of them had rated government and political parties positively. This was a collective and overarching tale in 2015 and of today — conflicting to the officials’.
Though some studies and indices claim impressive improvement in social and human development in Mansehra district since 2005, it would have achieved higher scores had all damaged schools been constructed and provided with the required facilities earlier. Consider this: ERRA website shows that by September 2020, only 60% were completed, while 40% (2,275) were still not built or were under construction. A SDPI study shows only 25% schools had the necessary facilities in the district.
The 1998 district population census shows 36% literacy rate (male 51% and female 23%), which increased only 3% by 2005. During 1998-05 there was little social sector progress as only 19 new schools were established, with no addition in the district’s health sector, a cause of concern given the global pandemic.
Our plan was to conduct a similar study in 2020. Covid-19 curbed our plan but not our enthusiasm. Few days ago, we drove through the newly built motorway to Mansehra. For our survey, we visited Balakot city and the site of the infamous New Balakot at Bakrial. We held focus group discussions with Hazara University scholars and some survivors of the earthquake. Here are some of our observations and surviviors’ tales.
Fifteen years on, apparently Balakot looks normal again as tents and prefabricated structures with blue roofs have almost gone and many we met have forgotten the day and the date of the quake. But they remember vividly what happened to them on the morning of October 8. Is it enough to be safe from future disasters? Experts believe disasters happen when vulnerability interacts with a hazard. Some scientists argue, “all mammals including humans mediate fear conditioning by a brain area called the amygdala.” If they face the same threat time and again, ‘fear conditioning’ deepens which helps improve alertness. A fundamental question however is: can a single incident create enough ‘fear conditioning’ amongst the affected people? Most likely not especially when risk is invisible. Awareness raising and capacity building seems to be an answer, but only partially. Inculcating fear of loss and punishing violators through strict rule enforcement seems to be required.
Construction in Balakot was banned soon after the catastrophe as it sits on a fault-line, yet officials looked the other way while construction accelerated. And in non-Red Zone areas too, the survivors did not build their houses according to the quake-resistant design. When we asked people about it, some replied, “The design reached us when we had already started the construction,” and others said “the new design was not practical as it forbade us from the timber” which is an essential material in the area. They argued, “The authorities forced us to use steel, cement and sand for the reconstruction. The official would refuse to release compensation funds if we did not use their prescribed material. They ignored local realities. Carrying steel rods and cement/sand bags to hill tops was very expensive and difficult as there were no proper roads. We did not have running water in many villages which was essential for modern construction.”
A participant said, “The earthquake came out of the blue and destroyed us enormously. Yet we bounced back strongly until the state officials started interfering in our efforts without consulting us. That damaged our resilience. Reconstruction in old Balakot and no construction in New Balakot site tells everything about our disaster management.”
When I asked Ahmad, a resident of Jabbi village about New Balakot city, he said, “People say after the 2010 floods, the government diverted most funds earmarked for New Balakot City to Multan and BISP.” Perhaps he echoed the remarks of Justice Ejazul Ahsan of the Supreme Court which he had made during the hearing of the case about the plight of the survivors. Justice Ahsan had said, “The money that was meant for the victims was instead spent on metro and BISP.”
Ms Hira, a scholar at Hazara University, shared her ordeal but found a positive side to the disaster. “Though short-lived, the quake suppressed differences between men and women in our area. As normalcy returned restrictions crept back.” The scholars unanimously felt the need to have a disaster management department because the region faces multiple disasters regularly. When I asked them to respond on the need to establish a disaster museum in Mansehra, they all agreed.
Tourism has been a major source of livelihood in Mansehra district for decades. To understand its growth and impact, we drove to Naran. One can’t ignore the mushrooming hotels throughout the route — a positive sign. Sadly, many look extremely vulnerable because they are built on steep edges.
Muhammad Safdar, a waiter, told us, “At the time of earthquake I was just six years old. My school was completely damaged. I never went back to school as it remained closed for many months. During that time, I became a child labourer and since then I am working.”
Joseph Stalin once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Safdar’s tale is extremely painful yet lost in official statistics.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 6th, 2020.
The writer works with Pattan Development Organisation which has been working with disaster prone communities since 1992. He can be reached at email@example.com