Noreen Haider: It has been more than six years when the Northern areas of Pakistan were hit by one of the most devastating earthquake in the history of the region. The earthquake measured 7.6 on the Richter scale and within the very few first seconds created an unimaginable devastation in an area of more than 30,000 square kilometer.
Seventy three thousand people lost their lives including thirty five thousand children and more than a hundred and twenty eight thousand were injured. The worst hit districts in Pakistan were districts of Mansehra, Kohistan, Shangla and Battagram. In terms of physical damage, almost 600,000 homes were destroyed – rendering 3.5 million people homeless – along with 6,000 schools and colleges, and 574 health facilities (over 73% of the total). There was also extensive destruction and damage caused to roads, water pipes (one-third of primary roads in AJK and NWFP were affected), sanitation facilities, power supplies, telecommunications and other amenities. Civil administration in the quake-hit areas was seriously eroded as government buildings were destroyed and government personnel killed as well
Photo (Left) :Ariel imagery of Balakot, Pakistan taken on 17th Oct 2005
The heaviest damage occurred to cities of Muzaffarabad in Pakistani held Kashmir and Balakot in Khyber Pakhtoon khawa that were nearest to the fault rupture responsible for the earthquake. Ground shaking was felt as far south as Islamabad, resulting in one spectacular building collapse.
The reason for such a great number of causalities was associated with the complete collapse of single storey unreinforced stone masonry buildings. Almost all the buildings, mainly of stone and block masonry in cement sand mortar with reinforced concrete slab or galvanized iron sheet roofing, collapsed in the areas close to the epicenter. The stone masonry walls consisted of irregularly placed undressed stones which were laid in cement sand or mud mortar. Stone masonry buildings were more common in the rural villages (75% of the building stock) than in the cities.
The quality of mortar and stones used and the level of workmanship were very poor mainly because of the economic condition of the people living in these parts. The most commonly used mortars consisted of 1 part cement to 10 parts and used to build. Often river stones which are locally available would also be used and these rounded and smooth stones in addition to the poor quality of mortar rendered a very loose bond between the stones which made the structures extremely vulnerable to earthquake forces.
There was very little evidence of horizontal bond beams provided at the levels of plinth, or roof in these Katcha dwellings (traditional rubble stone masonry house with mud mortar).
Photo (Right) : Typical Rural residences made of River pebble stones stacked up and loosely bonded with mud mortar.
However, many reinforced concrete buildings also completely collapsed and many more were seriously damaged by this earthquake. The main reason for these failures was weak beam connections and inadequate reinforcement.
Many houses in the Kaghan Valley and in Muzaffarabad were built on steep and unstable slopes and toppled with the sliding of these slopes. Landslides and vulnerable infrastructure also hampered rescue and medical efforts and many of the injured were carried for days by relatives down the mountains to seek help.
Over 3,000 schools collapsed, many were on steep unstable slopes in the Kaghan Valley and given the earthquake occurred in school hours, many hundreds of school children died.
District Mansehra in Khyber Pakhtoon khawa Province alone suffered the death toll of 24511 (twenty four thousand five hundred and eleven) deaths and 30, 500 (thirty thousand five hundred) injured.
It goes without saying that the people in this area had the horrific experience of nature at its most violent but after the initial shock it was realized that although grinding together of Indian and Eurasian Tectonic plate was the cause of earthquake it was not the sole reason for the massive deaths and destruction.
The very poor and instable construction on the mountains and valleys, with little regard to the risk involved had majorly contributed to the casualties. The number of collapsed buildings was testament to the irresponsible and careless way nature was being regarded by the people without any fear of the consequences.
The people of KPK and Azad Jammu Kashmir had to pay the highest price for the disrespect they showed to the mountains through massive deforestation. The earthquake triggered an endless series of landslides and mudslides which- after the passing of seven years-are still affecting the area hit by the earthquake. The damage caused to the environment was massive. Major slides occurred due to the destabilized mountains and many rivers were resultantly blocked including the major river Neelum.
Photo (Left) Neelum River landslide. Photo taken by Ikonos Satellite on 9th Oct 2005
One would expect that after going through the worst possible disaster caused by the hazard and worsened by so many human mistakes the people would naturally have an altered view of their world with regards to habitat and environment and measures for their wellbeing.
But the most amazing thing that I observed in my recent trip to Balakot in July this year was that there was very little evidence of any adaptation by the people in the Balakot city or in the valleys of Kaghan and Naran. In fact the population of Balakot City which had taken the worst hit has increased three times. The earthquake in fact generated massive economic activity in the city which attracted the surrounding population to concentrate there. International NGO established their offices for dozens of projects and overnight dozens of new NGOs sprung up there as local partner organizations. Balakot is now littered with new hotels, restaurants, tea shops, grocery shops, motor mechanic workshops, food outlets, markets, bazaars, hostels and shops of all description.
It is important to note that many reports from international expert teams of seismologists and geologists from France, Japan, China and Pakistan have declared Balakot as a Red Zone and verified that as many as 16 fault lines are passing beneath it. The Government of Pakistan has imposed a ban on all concrete construction in the Red Zone which is being continually violated. According to the experts a major fault line Jhelum-Himalaya is passing directly under Balakot and in the event of an earthquake could cause even heavier causalities than before.
The Government of Pakistan has planned to resettle around thirty thousand people in Balakot to another location a few kilometers away in a town “Bakaryal”built over five seventy five hectares but nobody from Balakot opted to resettle to the model town.
Photo (Right): High Danger
In the rural areas in the mountains the people are even less interested in leaving their land, traditionally built houses or adapting to any new lifestyle. They are contented in living in the same mountains, in vulnerable dwellings and small houses without changing a thing.
Photo (Left) : Living with Danger Recent photo of Naran Valley, District Mansehra
The obvious question is the reason why the disaster of 2005, the death and devastation could not change the mindset of the community and generate in them a desire for better, safer lifestyle. What is the reason behind the apparent apathy, or lack of desire to change?
I tried to find some the answers from the local community. Some people stated that they were even more convinced after the earthquake that no matter what they might prepare for the force of nature will over power everything when it strikes and so they believed that preparation was not worth much. Some said that they were really not bothered, when the time of death comes there is nothing that can hold it up so they had reconciled with it. Some people said that their faith has strengthened after earthquake and they believe that God’s will is the only thing that matters and he will roll up the mountains and split open the earth at will but all of them agreed that they had really not changed much with regards to lifestyle since that fateful disaster.
I could not find any person who believed that better preparedness and risk reduction was an option and it could save lives. Along with tradition and custom the very conservative and conformist views about religious beliefs have also a great role to play in this mindset.
I believe that after a great tragedy like Earthquake 2005, the affected people and witnesses to the apocalyptic images have altogether developed a changed psyche. The ordinary, text book methods of introducing risk reduction or advocacy for adaptation measures is not effective for them.
It is one thing to be enthusiastic about saving lives, livelihoods and environment in normal circumstances but it is quite another to feel excited about it, after living through horror in its worst form.
As a journalist who has witnessed the devastation of earthquake 2005 myself, I can understand some of the reasons and can feel the stillness in the beating hearts of the survivors but I also know that we cannot leave them in their vulnerable state, at their will.
For the future and protection of coming generations the mountains and people living in them have to be made safer. We have to take some effective approach that would ensure that the devastation of 2005 is not repeated again and the only way is through adapting to risk reduction strategies.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya Initiative’s team.
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