Post earthquake relief efforts and the race against winter


    Pakistan has to learn from the experiences of others


    The 7.5 magnitude earthquake that rattled Pakistan on October 26 left 271 dead, and obliterated 35,491 houses — and counting. While the numbers themselves are harrowing enough, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

    As winter begins to settle in, there are tough problems coming for the people worst affected by the quake. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa suffered the most damage, with Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab, following somewhere behind.

    According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) surveys, Shangla had the highest number of dead with 50 people, followed by Swat with 36, Chitral 32, Lower Dir 25, Tor Ghar 20, Upper Dir 17, and so on. The number of injured and the houses damaged were also highest in these areas.

    The NDMA also just issued warnings for precautionary measures for all relief efforts. Many of the areas that were hit by the quake are about to experience extreme temperatures — scattered rains and snowfall is heading for most places, according to the Met office.

    For people who have lost their homes, this isn’t a good time to be stuck out in the open.

    NDMA Spokesperson Ahmed Kemal said that the weather change will hit in the first week of November. Temperatures are expected to fall below zero degrees in some places. Relief and rehabilitation will become exceedingly tricky in the coming days.

    Luke Rehmat, a social worker and head of Kalash People Development Network, agreed that troubling times are coming. Chitral itself has been recovering from flash floods, and Kalash Valley suffered the brunt of that natural disaster as well.

    “The flood and earthquake affected families could face more issues. We know that rain and snowfall is to start from Monday and this will add to the difficulties that people face here,” Rehmat said while talking to Pakistan Today.

    The NDMA also just issued warnings for precautionary measures for all relief efforts. Many of the areas that were hit by the quake are about to experience extreme temperatures

    “Rehabilitation work will also get disrupted because of the cold weather. There is no question about it, the cement work cannot be continued once the weather goes into such extreme temperatures,” he continued grimly.

    The earthquake took down several houses completely in the Kalash Valley, while many others suffered partial damage.

    “A five year old boy died because of a landslide when the earthquake hit the valley,” Rehmat said.

    Whenever aid and relief activities begin they start with the easiest-to-reach places. The mountain side in Pakistan is one big chunk of hard-to-reach land, with some places that are harder that others to reach.

    When the flash floods hit earlier this year, there was a general fear that something much worse would follow if rehabilitation wasn’t completed before winter — and here we are now.

    Rehmat pointed out that aid and relief work was yet to start in the valley, which had been exceedingly hard for authorities to reach during the flashflood carnage. “Some food has been distributed here but reconstruction hasn’t begun yet,” Rehmat said.

    Jawad Iqbal, a resident of Swat and patron of Swat State Student Society, corroborates what Rehmat has highlighted, but for an entirely different area.

    “Harder to reach places are not getting the relief response that is needed from the government. Some of them have been given some flour or sugar and what not,” he told Pakistan Today.

    Many people in the earthquake areas quickly found shelter elsewhere. Many were able to find refuse in the home of a relative. This is an interesting and odd theme that recurs throughout KP irrespective of what disaster strikes. People lose their homes made of mud, find refuge with a relative, wait for government help; and whether or not that help comes, they at some point then find a way to rebuild their homes and their lives.

    “People are facing a lot of problems. There has been no discussion or response from the government about any kind of rehabilitation. People are trying to kill time and stay with whoever they know, but for how long?” Iqbal questioned.

    Relief work in mountain regions is often slow owing not just to the harsh terrain but also the lack of infrastructure needed for massive efforts. “The PDMA comes and does its surveys and nothing else,” Iqbal complained.

    “People that live here are egoistic and unable to express their sorrows openly. They will not ask for help and there has been no relief for them,” he lamented.

    The organisation that Iqbal works with created volunteer teams to conduct their own surveys. “It’s hard to get very accurate numbers but from what our teams can tell in the hilly areas over 60 per cent of the houses are either completely damaged or partially damaged. The plains are different and the damage is also different from one place to the next. 40 per cent of the houses in the plains are damaged,” he said.

    “Winter is itself a problem. People are living beneath an open sky and have no warm clothes or blankets,” he added.

    The weather of the area is harsh enough to put any plans of reconstruction on hold, but the people of the area have no real option.

    “When it’s cold in these areas it’s quite difficult to construct houses but the villagers are planning to do it at any cost because they have a dire need for shelter. They have no other option,” Iqbal said.

    But that’s easier said than done. Resources are scare and it will take time to rebuild. “When ample resources are present it takes over three months to construct a house. And right now over 90 per cent of the people here are waiting for aid to come through, they have nothing,” Iqbal explained.

    Pakistan at this point needs to look into investing in a strategy whereby mountain people are taught resilience. Examples of such practices can be found in neighbouring India and can even be borrowed from Nepal

    In his own village not a single person has been given any sort of aid. A strong community system has been helping people. While people find relatives to stay they still have to tackle a food shortage, various diseases including influenza and other chest infections, and gastro diseases.

    While medical facilities are nothing to boast about in the area, some organisations have setup medical camps. “I would say that they are satisfactory given the circumstances,” Iqbal said.

    Provincial and federal governments have already started distributing aid, but will it get to people quickly enough is a question that needs a speedy answer.

    Pakistan has to learn from the experiences of others. When a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal in April this year, their government was quick to hand out not just rations but also materials that mountainous communities could use to build temporary shelters.

    While the NDMA, PDMAs, and armed forces, have collectively given out around 36,299 tents, they have done so in areas that suffer from some of the harshest weather possible. Can a tent weather the icy storm that’s right around the corner for these communities?

    Moreover, relief efforts must also take into account how long rations can last for these communities. Will they be able to get by on what they are being provided with in the coming months? Some of the areas that have been battered by the earthquake have been battered before — in some cases only months ago — is it enough to just met out cheques and aid and do nothing else?

    Pakistan at this point needs to look into investing in a strategy whereby mountain people are taught resilience. Examples of such practices can be found in neighbouring India and can even be borrowed from Nepal.

    Simply getting throttled by one disaster after another cannot be an option for the country anymore. And nothing can make that more clear than the winter that’s waiting at the doorsteps of those still reeling from the aftershocks of the earthquake.


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