A magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck Kashmir and northern Pakistan on October 8, 2005, at 8:50 a.m. local time. The epicenter was located 9km northeast of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Since Kashmir is situated where the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and collide to produce the Himalayan Mountains, it is subject to frequent earthquakes. The earthquake is remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in South Asia, reminiscent of the 1935 earthquake that flattened Quetta and killed thousands.
Official death toll in Pakistan as of November 2005 was 87,350, but it is believed that more than 100,000 people died. Over 3.5 million people became homeless, and 38,000 people were injured. According to government statistics, 19,000 children perished in widespread school building collapses in the earthquake. 500,000 or more families were impacted by the earthquake. More than 500,000 large animals required emergency shelter due to the harsh winter, and another 250,000 agricultural animals died due to the stone barn collapse.
Muzaffarabad as a city was flattened out and a new city has since been rebuilt. Structural loss was humungous! More than 780,000 buildings were destroyed or irreparably damaged, and many more were left permanently useless. Lifelines were negatively impacted, particularly many important roads and highways that were blocked due to landslides and bridge collapses. Several regions were still inaccessible via land roads even three months after the earthquake. Power, water supply, and telephone services were all disrupted for varying amounts of time, although they were quickly restored in most places.
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The United States, which was in Afghanistan at the time, played a key role in leading the international response to the earthquake and provided key input via helicopters that helped to lift people, provide food, medicines and later cleared debris as well. Five CH-47 Chinook and three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, and a C-17 Globemaster III military aircraft were moved into Pakistan immediately, and at the high point of the emergency close to 70 helicopters were provided to help people on ground. International organizations made significant contributions in the initial rehabilitation phase. The World Food Programme, Turkish debris clearing teams, Qatar Relief, Medicines Sans Frontier, American Refugee Committee, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, International Committee of the Red Cross, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Cuban doctors’ contingent were all prominently visible.
Pakistan faces a severe challenge. It is situated at the meeting point of the Indian, Eurasian, and Arabian plate borders and has a high density of active faults. Since earthquakes cannot be avoided in Pakistan, it is essential for the federal, provincial, and local governments to implement preventive measures and strengthen or develop updated policies and plans to reduce human and property loss. Some examples of such measures include strengthening the metrological department with all available scientific resources, including human resources, and introducing “Building Codes” to construct all types of buildings. The infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, dams, etc., should be further strengthened with the best building materials to withstand high-intensity shocks. Many of these ideas were debated and some got implemented – but with mixed results.
Additionally, all governmental, semi-governmental, and private housing societies, development authorities, and construction businesses should be required to prepare for and fund safety measures at all phases of development. The academic curriculum should contain fundamental disaster management instruction from basic to college level. All public meeting places, such as banks, shopping centers, libraries, theatres, sports arenas, hotels, and even hospitals, should frequently conduct building evacuation drills to make everyone aware of their responsibilities before, during, and after earthquakes. Post the 2005 earthquake CDA updated its building code after Islamabad saw the collapse of the Margalla Towers building in which hundreds of residents died, and along with setting new rules for earthquake resistant buildings it also gave permission to now build higher buildings including sky scrapers that were previously prohibited in its earlier building code.
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The people of the affected areas remember their lost loved ones, the immense devastation, and the prodigious relocation that they experienced 17 years ago. Apart from reconstruction and rehabilitation—or the lack thereof—those who lost loved ones faced a larger challenge. In some circumstances, many people survived alone, either as parents who lost their spouse and children or as children who lost their parents and grandparents at a young age. They still have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as their hardships were soon forgotten.
Money was commonly transferred from the bureaucracy to patwaris and the contractors’ mafia, resulting in widespread corruption, although no one has been held culpable to date. Who, after all, is to blame for the rehabilitation process’s delay? Where have all the billions of dollars gone that came to Pakistan as foreign aid?
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMA) were established to prepare for and respond to any calamities in the future, but these authorities were unable to evolve to meet the next challenges. Floods in 2010, 2012, and most recently the huge rain induced floods of 2022, proved that these institutions have limited capacity to predict and respond to disasters. Complete reorganization of these institutions is needed – borrowing best international practices from the North America, European and Chinese disaster response strategies. Tragedy of Oct 2005 reminds us of our vulnerability. Without a strong political commitment, a sound legal framework and well-defined improved policy design we are where we were in the morning of Oct 8, 2005.