November Issue 2005

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 18 years ago

daanish-mustafa-nov05It would be a very serious mistake to blame the catastrophic damage from the earthquake of October 8, 2005, on nature, terrain, or even worse — sins of the victims. Enough has been written on the actual damage, the tragic stories of how victims have suffered and how civil society, the international community and the government have mobilised support. Of far greater importance is to review the failings that led to the disaster, and the lessons learned from this calamity to chart a course for a safer future.

Disasters expose the vulnerable underbellies of the societies in which they occur. Susceptibility to suffer damage in environmental disasters and the relative inability to recover from the damage, are outcomes of deep fissures that divide societies along class, gender, age, ethnic, religious and ideological lines. Disasters serve to dramatically highlight the deep injustices and social structures of exclusion and oppression that govern everyday life. The earthquake in Northern Pakistan and Azad Kashmir did the same that Hurricane Katrina did in the United States or other disasters have done elsewhere — show us a horrifying picture of our society that we did not want to see.

What have we learned from this earthquake? The first, was the greatness of the people of Pakistan in the face of adversity. The bumbling initial response of the government notwithstanding, the unity and generosity displayed by Pakistani civil society made me proud to be a Pakistani. We must never let anybody tell us again, particularly the odious bureaucrats and the parha likha “drawing room” crowd that there is something fundamentally wrong with the Pakistani people. The people of Pakistan mobilised and opened their hearts and wallets to help the victims. So one is tempted to believe that it is the state that holds back the Pakistani people from fulfilling their destiny. If the state dealt with the Pakistani people as equals, to be helped to achieve their potential, rather than a rogue population to be controlled and protected from itself, maybe Pakistan would be a very different place.

However, it seems that the state is going to continue to maintain its patronising and supercilious attitude towards its people. According to news reports, the cabinet is talking about giving out reconstruction contracts to foreigners, because they are more honest than us!

Second, it was an eye-opener to see the poor and vulnerable state of the communication infrastructure in Azad Kashmir and adjoining districts of the NWFP. Not to mention the limited lift capacity of the Pakistani armed forces. We found out that there is not a single C-130-capable airstrip in Azad Kashmir. What did our military planners expect in the event of a war? That the enemy would spare the bridges and roads? How did the military plan on supplying the three divisions that it has stationed in Azad Kashmir? Clearly the establishment’s neglect of the communication infrastructure over the past 57 years crucially contributed to the tragedy. So many thousands of lives could have been saved if areas had been more accessible faster.

The disaster revealed the rampant corruption in our society where authorities allow shoddy, haphazard construction, because palms are greased and building codes are ignored. But beyond the issue of government and business corruption, is the issue of inappropriate or non-existent building codes and the cultural predilection towards inappropriate building technology. Being from the area and having grown up there, I can recall how cultural preferences and building styles have changed in Azad Kashmir and the adjoining Mansehra district. I distinctly recall what a source of pride and joy it was for my family, and many others like them in Muzaffarabad, when they could finally afford to have ‘lanter’ on their houses. House and building construction was supposed to reflect the owner’s ascent up the class ladder. The poorest had thatched roofs and mud walls. As you found a job with the government and joined the ranks of lower middle class you got yourself a tin roof. If you made it abroad or had become a senior officer, you got yourself a concrete roof. ‘Lanter’ was the ultimate statement to the world that you had arrived! Today we all know what this blind worship of “modern” trends, without proper building codes, meant for the thousands of women and children in Azad Kashmir, Mansehra and Kohistan.

The disaster also revealed what a marginal place environmental hazards hold in our collective consciousness and policy formulation. There was not one qualified, well-equipped Pakistani rescue team in a country of more than 160 million. Every time you see disaster pictures from any part of the world — even from the poorest of countries — you see some uniformed, professional-looking disaster relief workers trying to put out a fire, investigating a bomb explosion, or rescuing flood victims. In the case of Pakistan, invariably the television shows scores of people in shalwar kameez milling around or looking into the cameras, while those in uniform — the military and police are generally keeping a safe distance. Sadly enough, the images this time around were no different — especially in the initial days of the quake.

Repositioning hazards into the centre of our collective consciousness and policy thinking has to be the starting point of building a safer future for our people. Examples abound of ongoing policy boondoggles that completely ignore the potential hazards associated with such policy decisions. Two examples are the proposed construction of the GHQ in Islamabad and drought management in Balochistan, which clearly reflect blatant official neglect of future natural calamities.

To be fair, Islamabad’s master plan formulated by the Greek born, German- trained architect, Constantinos Doxiados, is fatally flawed in terms of neglecting the effects of greater urbanisation on the hydrology and geomorphology of the headwaters of the Lai river in Rawalpindi. It is elementary geomorphology that greater urbanisation of headwaters contributes to greater surface runoff and higher flood peaks. The government instead of remodeling the ongoing rampant urbanisation in Islamabad to mitigate the flooding problems in the Lai, or removing human encroachment in the Lai flood plain, is planning on building the GHQ in the headwaters of the Bedranwali kas, an eastern tributary of the Lai. This was the only tributary of the Lai, which did not have urbanised headwaters.

The Supreme Court took suo moto notice of Islamabad Chalets, a small 200-kanal development in Pir Sohawa, among others, on the plea that the development would pollute the headwaters of Khanpur dam, and cause traffic problems on the only road leading up to it. However, evidently nobody even bothered to look at a toposheet, which would have shown that the development is not even in the same valley as the headwaters of Khanpur dam. The Court, however, has not taken notice of the ill advised development of the GHQ in E-10 which has real potential for accentuating flood peaks in downstream Rawalpindi, and making the potential traffic problems associated with the Islamabad Chalets look like rush hour in the central Sahara desert. The relative ignorance of potential hazards associated with developmental activity, and arbitrary inquisitions in the aftermath of a great national tragedy are illustrative of the policy and popular attitude towards hazards.

In Balochistan, the drought has devastated entire communities. Ask anybody in Balochistan and there will be tales of destitution, hunger, displacement and environmental degradation associated with the drought. Almost everybody in Balochistan also knows that if it were drought alone, they could have dealt with it. The actual disaster really unfolded when the government encouraged tubewell installations, and then imposed a minimal flat rate on tubewell electricity. Today, more than 14,000 tubewells, often installed for free by the government, running 24 hours are mining the scarce groundwater resources of the arid province. The tubewells are destroying traditional karez irrigation, and dugwells, and depriving thousands of small farmers of their livelihoods. The government in the meantime is continuing to subsidise 3 per cent of the total farmers in Balochistan with flat rate electricity, planning on installing more free tubewells, and continuing to encourage water-intensive crops like apples and onions in the name of agricultural modernisation and increased productivity. What will happen in the event of another drought and once the groundwater has been mined to the point of no return, is something every child in Balochistan knows. The government, however, has chosen to ignore the realities. Focus on accumulation and narrow views of development have made the policy makers and rich farmers blind to the increasing vulnerability of the province to drought hazard, and that is quite typical of the policy attitude towards hazards in general.

In the coming days, weeks, months and hopefully, years, there will be much soul-searching. Hopefully, the soul-searching will be along the lines of avoiding the mistakes of the past and reorienting the developmental trajectory of the country away from greater accumulation and outward trappings of modernisation and towards building resilience among communities and greater equity in distribution of the fruits of development. But in the meantime the Pakistani people must demand that the government makes hazard management and disaster response the centrepiece of its policy and developmental agenda.

However, the most fundamental insight is humility. We may be quite up- to-date when it comes to the rituals of Islam, but when it comes to core attitudes of a religious system, we are ignorant or downright hostile. Building multi-storey concrete buildings and dams in earthquake zones and drilling tubewells in drought-prone deserts, are all expressions of arrogance in the face of nature. Environmental hazards occur when humans degrade the natural environment in the arrogant belief that their technology can defeat and subjugate nature. We cannot fight nature, we must learn to live with it, as harmoniously as possible. Every time our mandarins, politicians and businessmen think of one more mega-project without considering the consequences, they would do well to remember the faces of the victims of this recent tragedy.

Arrogance breeds recklessness, and the reckless fall — and fall hard. All of them.