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Sound byte: ‘Disasters are all manmade, there’s nothing natural about them’

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Miguel Loureiro is an academic who worked extensively with aid workers and researchers from the Research & Information Systems for Earthquakes in Pakistan (Risepak) project at LUMS. Dawn asked Mr Loureiro what changes he felt had taken place in the region that experienced the 2005 earthquake and whether Pakistan was now in a better position to deal with such disasters.

Q: Ten years on, what would you say are the lessons from the relief & reconstruction efforts following the 2005 earthquake?

A: We’ve learned a lot of interesting things from experiences worldwide, not just in Pakistan, but there is still a long way to go. There is now a national organisation in charge of disasters – the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) – that also tries to prevent such incidents from occurring through risk-reduction efforts.

But it is not working very well and the 2010 floods were a glaring example. The people in government did not pay attention to NDMA; they need to have more power.

The way it works now is that the NDMA takes control of the situation once a disaster strikes. In 2005, there was no NDMA and with the country being under military rule, General Pervez Musharraf created the Federal Relief Commission and the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (Erra). But these things weren’t done by a parliament; they were the one-off actions of a military dictator.

The army did a good job with relief efforts, but they didn’t know when to let go. Recovery and rehabilitation is not like relief work, once you’re dealing with people’s lives and their livelihoods, you can’t afford to take very long in decision-making.

Another major fallout from the 2005 quake was the fact that local governments were destroyed. From our experiences with disasters around the world, we know that it is the people who must recover: the government can only lend a hand. Once the army goes back, once the federal government goes back, the local government will still be there. But sadly, in 2005, citizens were not in charge of this process.

Q: Which main social changes can be traced back to the earthquake?

A: In AJK, better rebuilding only focused on physical structures and not housing reconstruction. Musharraf promised that every house would be rebuilt, but of course that wasn’t viable, so the finance ministry said, “We don’t have the money for that, but what we will do is subsidise your reconstruction costs if you conform to certain quake-resistant building regulations.”

This was untenable: the entire subsidy amounted to around Rs135,000 and the total cost of rebuilding an average house was close to Rs450,000 in those days.

At the time of the earthquake, a lot of the most able-bodied men were away from their homes. The dilemma they faced was that if they went back to help, they would lose their jobs, which provide the money they needed to send back home now more than ever.

Of course, a lot of the changes were not real changes, they were just chronic effects, which happened steadily over time and only became apparent after the quake.

But what did happen was a change in the way people showed their wealth. Those who could afford it built their houses better; those who couldn’t built back the same.

Gulf migration began in the 1970s, but income levels didn’t really affect the way people made houses. After the earthquake, there was an excuse to build bigger houses and those became a way to show off wealth and affluence. At the same time, the earthquake made inequality more visible.

Mobile phone communication also boomed after the earthquake. The lack of a cellular communication infrastructure was a big gap at the time, but it was later allowed.

Many people I met there used to joke that before the quake, the world only used to hear of one Kashmir. But after earthquake, it was opened up to the world and there were a lot of positive outcomes.

When the NGOs came in, you had more access to them if you were more educated. There was also a myth among men that, after the earthquake, women became more mobile, outgoing and empowered. You would see them going out more, working at NGOs, going to hospitals. Both sides said this, those who liked it and those who didn’t.

But we didn’t find any evidence to support this. A lot of the women who were working at NGOs, we found, were the ones who had taught at local government schools, which were now destroyed.

Q: What lessons from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake were taken and put into action in Nepal?

A: Both Kashmir and Nepal were quite similar in terms of the geography of the area, and some lessons were taken. Socially, the migration situation is also similar and there are various problems linked to martial law there too, as was the case with Pakistan in 2005.

In both places, there is no social welfare to speak of. Even the BISP is for the poorest of the poor and several citizens fall through the net. Pakistan is not a welfare state, neither is Nepal.

A lot of organisations came up with lesson plans. Some of them were taken from what the big organisations did in Pakistan in 2005. But the saddest thing for me is that there are a lot of things that Pakistanis didn’t learn about disaster mitigation.

We know what to do after a disaster, but we’re not focusing enough on risk mitigation. No one dies of an earthquake; people die because buildings fall on them. They fall because they are not built to be quake resistant.

There’s no such thing as a natural disaster, there are natural hazard. There’s nothing natural about disasters, they are all manmade because we don’t build properly or plan well.

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2015

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