The Nepali hazardscape

  • Critical examination of reconstruction in Muzaffarabad can provide valuable lessons for Nepal’s efforts
- Ajaya Dixit, Fawad Khan & Daanish Mustafa
The Nepali hazardscape

May 14, 2015-

The earthquakes that hit central Nepal since midday of April 25 have caused over 8,000 deaths and over 15,000 injuries, flattened hundred of thousands of homes, and disrupted community lives. Eighteen days after April 25, on May 12 midday, a similar high magnitude earthquake and its aftermath caused more deaths, injuries, and disrupted the efforts of Nepalis to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

Ten years ago, on October 6, 2005 at 08:50 Pakistan Standard Time, an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 struck Pakistan-administered Kashmir near the city of Muzaffarrbad. Until October 27, 2005, there were 978 aftershocks with a magnitude greater than 4.0. The aftershocks did very little damage because the principal rupture had already flattened settlements, crushed buildings, triggered landslides, and disrupted road connections across 30,000 sq km of Pakistan’s mountainous and highly-dispersed northwest terrain. The primary earthquake reduced Pakistan’s picturesque landscape to rubble in a matter of seconds. The huge numbers of deaths and casualties turned this disaster into the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in Pakistan’s history.

Shock and response

More than 80,000 people lost their lives, 200,000 were injured, and more than 3.5 million were left homeless in Kashmir. About 17,000 school buildings and hospitals collapsed. The Saturday that the earthquake struck was a normal school day and students were inside. It was the month of Ramzan and many families were in their homes resting, following their pre-dawn meal. People did not have time to escape from their homes and schools because the poorly-built buildings shook violently and quickly collapsed, trapping them under rubble. A significant number of casualties were caused by the complete collapse of single storey stone masonry houses. The walls in these houses consisted of irregularly placed rounded stones laid in cement, mud mortar or, in many cases, just dry stones. The engineering of the modern cement concrete buildings was also deficient and inappropriate.

The affected region was one of the most highly militarised zones in the world and was little known to the outside world. The sheer scale of the human suffering following the earthquake forced the Pakistani government to open this inaccessible region to international donors, civil society, and non-government actors to support relief and reconstruction efforts. The region saw an extensive national and international humanitarian response to the crisis. Pakistanis donated money and materials. Teams from different parts of Pakistan and around the world participated in the relief operation. Volunteer groups, individuals, and professionals reached out to survivors with funds.

Helicopters ferried supplies while international agencies, non-government organisations, and humanitarian groups provided technical personnel, doctors, medical aid, food, temporary shelters, and blankets. Five crossing points on the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan were opened to facilitate the flow of humanitarian aid and medical support to the affected region. Seismic experts and geologists tried to understand the nature of the earthquake; civil engineers and architects sought to understand how the buildings collapsed; and donors, development agencies, and multilateral banks offered resources for reconstruction. Temporary migrants to cities became permanent settlers with new sources of vulnerability.

2005 post-reconstruction scene

In the years following the earthquake, there have been both intended and unintended changes to the region. Regional governments have replaced old public buildings with new lighter structures better designed to absorb earthquake shocks, or at least be less likely to cause fatal damage should the structures fail. Efforts have been made to improve basic infrastructure, health, education, road networks, water supply, waste management, and other services, although they are still underdeveloped.

The unintended changes that contributed to risk reduction and adaptive capacity to disasters have been significant. Some of the changes were:

One, Muzaffarabad saw one of the largest relief efforts in the history in Pakistan. Scores of aid agencies, multi-national, national, and local civil society organisations joined hands in an effort to support those who had been affected by the earthquake. What had previously been an insulated society became exposed to diverse experiences. This level of institutional diversification was unprecedented in the region’s history.

Second, for the first time, cellular phone companies were allowed to operate in the area to support the relief activities. Access to affordable communication helped build commercial and social networks in the days following the earthquake.

Third, there was an immediate expansion of formal financial services necessitated by the disbursement of compensation through transparent channels. Before the earthquake financial transactions were done informally and most foreign remittance came in through the hundi system that relied on personal relationships and trust. Formal mechanisms such as identity cards and bank accounts became more widely used.

Fourth, the relief efforts led to improvements in Kashmir’s transport system and road networks. Increased accessibility resulted in economic diversification, improved access to social services, and contributed to diversification of livelihoods in the region.  

And finally, the government, with the help of donors, subsidised housing construction with the condition that seismic proof designs be incorporated. Civil society and charitable organisations built temporary schools and health units, some of which became permanent. They run to this day because the construction and materials were of better quality than earlier.

The unplanned and indirect strengthening of networks and systems made a larger contribution to reduce risks than some of the direct measures that organisations classify as disaster risk reduction.

Conceptualising Nepal’s reconstruction

The massive tremors that hit central Nepal since midday of April 25 have caused thousands of deaths and injuries, flattened hundred of thousands of homes, and disrupted community lives. Yet, Nepalis in Nepal and all over the world, and their neighbours and friends, have to reconcile themselves to the fact that tens of kilometres beneath where they live, the Indian and Eurasian plates will continue their tussle. The impacts will forever affect landscape, people, society, and livelihood. Nepalis have no choice but to adapt to this reality with greater resolve, grit, and determination.

In that journey, they must build on the fundamental strengths they possess—social capital and community resilience. Despite a weak government and post-conflict political instability, the presence of community-based institutions at sub-national levels maintain social cohesion and play a constructive role in managing services like drinking water, electricity, forest, and even developing infrastructure such as trail bridges. As Nepalis move forward, they must allow competing visions, strategies, institutional cultures, resources, and perspectives to be expressed and articulated as democratic deliberation.

Disaster researchers within the human geography discipline suggest that minimising the impact of hazards is not only about reducing the impacts of physical extremes but also about perceptions that influence individual and collective behaviour to hazards. Many times, while dealing with hazard impacts, one perception, idea, or strategy may dominate and exclude others. If that idea does not work, alternative paths become unavailable and vulnerability to hazards reproduces. Plurality and diversity make societies and communities resilient, hegemony of a single perspective does not. It is therefore essential that scientific inquiry and democratic deliberations be continuously promoted to expand the practical range of choices for building resilience into reconstruction efforts.

In Kashmir, approaches used by the government, civic groups, and others in the aftermath of the earthquake helped to introduce strategies of disaster risk reduction. These lessons can add value to Nepal’s efforts of rebuilding damaged shelters, community lives, and infrastructure, providing disaster risk reduction benefits that outweigh the costs incurred. A critical examination of reconstruction efforts elsewhere could provide valuable lessons in this endeavour.

Dixit was a member of the team led by Khan (ISET-Pakistan) and Mustafa (Reader, Kings College, London) that studied the post-earthquake Muzafarrabad scene

Published: 15-05-2015 08:30

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