In many ways we have come a long way since the 2005 earthquake by creating the disaster management institutions, in generating awareness on disaster risk reduction and preparedness, and in introducing international best practices and specialised skills.  Our challenges, however, continue to mount as we face a wide range of recurring disasters.    

These events tend to occur in a distinct manner. Pakistan is experiencing recurring floods since 2010 characterised by extremely heavy rains compressed in a short time. Their impact is exacerbated by the Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) activity in the glaciated northern regions and these events  are being largely attributed to the climate change phenomenon. In 2015, Chitral district faced debilitating pre-monsoon flash floods and a GLOF event, followed by the October 26 earthquake with cumulative impacts in loss of life, livelihoods and infrastructure.

With respect to the earthquake, perhaps seismologists can explain as to why more damage occurred on the higher altitudes closer to the water sheds. In some areas of Upper Dir and elsewhere, it required an hour’s travelling if not more, to reach the earthquake destroyed houses dotted along the terraces along the mountainsides. Therefore, an extremely challenging terrain and weather environment confronts the responses.  

This article attempts to review the ongoing earthquake responses as seen from the grass roots in the first week of November. We can make corrections where possible and learn from the experiences. The critique in no way disparages the untiring efforts being put in to save lives and dispense relief by a wide range of civil and military actors.   

The basic architecture of the earthquake response remains reactive and it largely relies on the government’s routine administrative capacities in dealing with a complex disaster spread across inhospitable terrain. The responses rely much on the operational - logistical capacities of the armed forces, on political messaging and a top driven response delivery, from the resource dispensation perspective.   

 The earthquake affected community members were unanimous in outlining the response priorities: restoring access, provision of shelter, food, emergency medical care and support in making up for the lost livestock and livelihoods.  

The ongoing responses mainly focus on the provision of non-winterised tents, random food distributions, blankets and tarpaulins; and the health response overly relies on the deficient primary and secondary healthcare facilities.  The logistical challenges seem to be impeding the responses and compensation for the lost livestock and livelihoods is perhaps not planned or it is yet to be prosecuted.     

There are of course positive aspects: foremost being the much lesser than anticipated human cost of the disaster. Government’s early decision to provide housing compensation in the face of the approaching winter is commended and there is no reported extreme cold triggered loss of life.    

Perhaps the most redeeming feature is the communities’ resilience in the earthquake affected regions. It is a testimony to the social values that unite our rural society in duress. The community members are extending support to the vulnerable. There is no time to grieve and the victims, in many cases, are reconstructing their houses from what can be salvaged.  We did not come across anyone without a roof. The sterling contributions of the Village Councillors in facilitating the relief efforts is noteworthy.    

Beneficiaries are being compensated for the fallen houses in the fully and partially damaged categories at the rate of rupees two hundred thousand and one hundred thousand per unit, respectively.  There is a need though to ensure that the exercise is undertaken in a merit driven, fully inclusive and a participatory manner. It should entail deployment of local grievance mechanisms and NADRA supported beneficiary identification facilitation.  

Disaster risk reduction imperatives are conspicuous by their non-adherence in the houses reconstruction. Rural houses in the region are mostly configured in mud plastered stone walls and wooden beams supporting the roof. The earthquake’s peak ground acceleration caused the walls to collapse and the roof to cave in.

Beneficiary driven houses reconstruction, to the best of my understanding, does not entail mandatory compliance with seismic resilient standards. Perhaps some guidance on this account is being furnished but given the understandable weather driven haste, most houses are likely to be reconstructed to the earthquake vulnerable configurations.    

Some prescriptive comments: earthquake preparedness must be anchored on the precept of pre-emption.  Key response capacities and resources, emergency shelter in particular, should be pre-deployed in the first responder vulnerable districts. Their logistic and integrated planning capacities should be reinforced and contingency planning should trigger vertical infusion of needs driven resources, logistic capacities and lifesaving expertise.    

The post disaster response must be premised on the worst case outcomes and it should entail deploying critical lifesaving capacities very early when information is deficient. In an earthquake situation this would translate into deployment of the critical shelter, food, specialised medical trauma management, search and rescue capacities, water purification and basic hygiene management capacities. There may be other needs driven interventions. We should also introduce a standard android cum information management driven post disaster assessment method to promote evidence based decision making.  These actions comprise the essentials of a lifesaving response and they should be introduced system wide, as standing operating procedures.  

A parallel effort should go in reducing the vulnerabilities of the disaster afflicted communities by developing resilient social infrastructure and assets, promoting diverse livelihoods and making the community members aware of hazards and critical responses.

Countries are embracing the concept of resilience that integrates disaster risk reduction with climate change adaptation, land use planning, sustainable development, financial risk management, environmental regeneration, education and awareness raising. Non-traditional stakeholders like the corporate sector are being taken on board for minimising risks and integrated solutions are deployed by affecting cross sectoral synergies. Managing the increasingly complex emerging hazards scenarios is the whole-of-the-society and government function that is backed by a firm political will. We have a long way to go. Going back to the earthquake locale:  

Sixteen school girls in village Aseela in Lower Dir ran for safety from their school as the ground shook violently on 26 October.  While the school stood the girls sustained injuries from the falling mountain side rocks and debris; something they apparently were not anticipating. The incident epitomises the significance of inculcating hazards awareness, culture of safety and creating safe schools for disaster resilient societies.

The writer is a disaster risk management consultant and an ex-Army officer.