The skyscrapers in Tokyo swayed, as the island nation of Japan was hit by the M 9.0 tremor on March 11, 2011. The earthquake is believed to be the strongest of our recorded history. The earthquake produced a 23 feet high Tsunami in the Pacific Ocean, which ran onto the coastal land of Japan, annihilating human settlements. The calamitous natural phenomena killed around 20,000 people in Japan and thousands more are still missing. Observations and calculations by UK, Japan and Austria based scientific research organizations suggest that the quake was so massive that it may have moved our planet from its axis by some centimeters, reducing the length of days forever.
If we look at the M 7.8 disaster that hit parts of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, on October 8, 2005, it is shocking to see that at least 87,000 people were killed and around 100,000 injured in the disaster.
Millions of people were also displaced from their houses and villages, creating the biggest humanitarian crisis in the country’s history, dwarfed in magnitude later only by the 2010 flood disaster. One cannot resist the impulsive thought of comparing the number of people killed during the mega earthquake in Japan with the one in Kashmir.
It seems that had the 23 feet high earth quake triggered Tsunami not hit coastal areas of Japan, the number of deaths may have been way lesser than what they are! What was different in Japan that resulted in relatively lesser loss of life due to the collapse of buildings? One of the vital differences between the two countries is that while Japan strictly follows disaster resilient building codes, in Pakistan most of the construction in village, towns and cities, alike, is being done without any planning, mostly using sub-standard materials, and flawed designs. So, as the buildings came down in Pakistan like houses-of-cards after the M 7.8 tremor, in Japan they swayed, and some may have collapsed, under impact of the M 9.0 mega quake. In an essay titled “The Kashmir Earthquake: a Confluence of Unfortunate Events”, Neil Edelman states that 50 % of the houses in the Pakistan administered Kashmir region collapsed due to impact of the disaster, while 25 % of the shops were also leveled to the ground. Neil further reports that 291 hospitals and 12 000 schools were destroyed, resulting in the death of at least 17,000 children, an entire “generation of children”.
Even today, thousands of houses, schools and other buildings in the villages, towns and cities of Pakistan are being constructed at highly vulnerable spots, creating serious threat for lives of the inhabitants. In many cases, the reconstructions in Kashmir earthquake affected areas, as well as the recent flood disaster, have been done in already affected areas at disaster prone sites, recreating more risks. The situation demands for better disaster preparedness, because there is no denying of the fact that better prepared communities tend to save lives and property in a better way.
In addition to absence of earthquake resilient building codes, the second most important reason for large deaths in Pakistan was the lack of awareness, training and equipments for systematic evacuation of trapped people. Heart wrenching scenes of family members frantically trying to dig into collapsed structures with bare hands to reach to the voices that kept coming for several days remain a testimony to the fact that neither the state, nor the citizens, had prepared well enough to face a disaster of that magnitude.
FOCUS’ work in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and response spans over a period of 17 years, starting in 1994 with provision of shelter for Afghan refugees in Karachi. Since then FOCUS has developed globally recognized programs in the fields of Search and Rescue, Disaster Assessment, Hazard Assessment, Community Based Disaster Risk Management and School Safety. Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), an affiliate of the Aga Khan Development Network, was one of the many aid organizations that sprang into action in the wake of the Kashmir disaster. Specialized teams of Search and Rescue reached to remotest locations in the affected areas and helped the people in distress by evacuating the injured in choppersand transporting relief items. It is pertinent to note that during the 2005 earthquake FOCUS was the only organization in Pakistan having an internationally trained and highly equipped team of Search and Rescue. The humanitarian missions were assisted
by hundreds of volunteers. In recognition of the services rendered, FOCUS Pakistan was awarded the prestigious Sitara-e-Aisar by President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. FOCUS’ work in the field of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and response spans over a period of 17 years, starting in 1994 with provision of shelter for Afghan refugees in Karachi.
Since then FOCUS has developed globally recognized programs in the fields of Search and Rescue, Disaster Assessment, Hazard Assessment, Community Based Disaster Risk Management and School Safety. FOCUS Pakistan emphasizes on taking DRR to the communities and building capacity of the local people to anticipate, plan for, and respond to disasters. FOUCUS has formed a dedicated team of Geologists, Geographers and GIS officers for the purpose of identifying, mapping and monitoring hazard prone sites in the entire program area, including Gilgit – Baltistan, Chitral, parts of Sindh and some parts of Punjab. In the Gilgit – Baltistan and Chitral – areas known as “houses of hazards” because of the highly vulnerable nature of the region’s geography, FOCUS has mapped 150 villages, to identity the hazards and risks, objective being better preparedness of the communities, through awareness raising, response training and small level mitigation.
The assessment reports and maps are increasingly being used Global lessons, learnt from calamities of all kinds – floods, earthquakes, Tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, suggest that lives and properties of communities can be saved through better land-use planning, preparedness for disasters and coordinated, timely, responses. by different government and community organizations operating in the region for land-use planning. Apart from assessment of hazards and risks, FOCUS works for building capacities of the local communities in different aspects of disaster management. Trainings are regularly imparted to local communities in the field of search and rescue, rope management, fire fighting, first-aid, casualty management, relief distribution and camp management. These trainings enable the community volunteers, who have been organized into Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) and Village Emergency Response Teams (VERTs), to remain prepared for any unforeseen incident having the potential to cause loss of life or property.
So far, FOCUS has trained around 34,000 volunteers in Gilgit – Baltistan, Chitral and Karachi, among other parts of the country. FOCUS has also established community stockpiles, housing items like tents, blankets, ropes and equipments required for small level excavation and lifting of heavy objects, like pullers, shovels, levers and crow bars.
84 such community stockpiles have been established and handed over to the communities for use during disaster. Additionally, four regional stockpiles, one each, have been established in Karachi, Gilgit and Chitral, to be used during emergency. The highly equipped and trained 40 member strong Search and Rescue Team (SART) comes into action immediately after a large scale disaster. The team has male and female (35 %) members from Gilgit – Baltistan, Chitral and Karachi, bringing together a diverse mix of experiences and expertise in rural and urban rescue operations. FOCUS has also established volunteer Disaster Assessment and Response Teams (DARTs) comprising of professionals, like engineers, doctors, civil servants, development practitioners, in its program areas, to ensure professional and multi dimensional assessment of the damages inflict by a disaster. Based on the assessment reports of DART, FOCUS mobilizes resources for relief delivery and other responses required. A major component of FOCUS’ disaster risk reduction approach is working with school children and teachers. The School Safety trainings are delivered with a strategic view of raising awareness and imparting skills to the future generations. The trainings include development of evacuation plans for the schools, identification of safer areas and in some cases, retrofitting of buildings to make them disaster resistant. FOCUS has also obtained an Earthquake Simulator to provide real-time earthquake experience to school children. Earthquake simulation is a unique concept introduced in Pakistan by FOCUS. Besides equipping the communities and imparting trainings of different kinds, FOCUS Pakistan has also used advocacy as a tool to mainstream DRR in the country. The International School Safety Conference held in Islamabad in the year 2008, in which a declaration had unanimously been passed demanding better school safety measures at all levels, was one of the several advocacy effortsundertaken by FOCUS Pakistan. Sessions are regularly held for politicians, government officials and civil society organizations to underline the importance of preparedness for disaster risk reduction. Strong networking with government organizations, like National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), and other relevant non-governmental organizations, including all specialized agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, helps FOCUS Pakistan in pooling of experiences and expertise for coordinated response before, during and after, the times of disaster. Global lessons, learnt from calamitiesof all kinds – floods, earthquakes, Tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, suggest that lives and properties of communities can be saved through better land-use planning, preparedness for disasters and coordinated, timely, responses. The recent example of Japan’s resilience in the wake of a mega disaster shall serve as an eye opener for governments and communities across the planet. There is no alternative to preparedness and disaster risk reduction is a shared responsibility that we all need to shoulder. If we are still unable to create safer human settlements and resilient communities, taking advantage from robust knowledgebase available with human kind, would it be appropriate for us to put the blame for destruction and deaths on nature alone?