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The Day Earth Shook
by Jennifer Mckay

The mountains of northern Pakistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir are magnificent. Unfortunately, they also hide great dangers. Underneath those majestic peaks and beautiful valleys lie fault lines that make the region one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world. On 8 October 2005, the potential danger became a reality when a massive earthquake of 7.6 magnitude, struck. The epicentre was located near Muzaffarabad in Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK).

Eight years have now passed since that fateful Saturday morning when the world came crashing down for millions of people but the memories are seared into the minds of all who were there. Within a few minutes, over 73,000 people were killed and 120,000 suffered serious injuries. Thousands of those killed were school children who were crushed when their schools collapsed on them. More than 3.5 million people suddenly found themselves homeless in the face of a fast-approaching Himalayan winter.

The trail of devastation stretched across 30,000 sq kms of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu & Kashmir. In Islamabad, an apartment building fell taking 78 lives and some buildings in Punjab suffered slight damage. But it was the North that bore the brunt of the quake. The destruction was on an enormous scale - 600,000 houses, 6,298 education facilities, 350 health centres, 4,000 water and sanitation plants, 949 government buildings, 6,400 kms of roads, telecommunications, crops and livestock, all damaged or completely destroyed. The losses were far larger than those in the 2004 Asian Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, though this was little understood at the time.

This was the largest disaster to hit Pakistan since independence and the country was unprepared. At time of the earthquake, Pakistan did not have a civilian institution that handled large-scale disaster response. The Emergency Relief Cell in Cabinet Division dealt with small recurrent emergencies and the National Crisis Management Cell in the Ministry of Interior was responsible for law and order situations in emergencies. However, there was no coordination or institutional arrangement between these two agencies to handle a situation like this. Although the civil administration was responsible for steering relief efforts, it too had been crippled by the catastrophe. Many federal and provincial government authorities had lost staff members as well as members of their own families, and, public buildings and infrastructure had been destroyed. With existing systems and government infrastructure being inadequate and unable to deal with the situation, the obvious solution was to call in the Army.

I have written previously about the Army's role in disasters but on this anniversary of the 2005 earthquake it is worth looking back at the Army's role in the response and also to consider how that has contributed to better disaster management in the following years. It was during the earthquake that I first came into contact with the Pakistan Army and I, like so many others, learned much from engaging with them in the response and subsequent phases. Over the years since, I have continued to work in disaster management and conduct research and evaluations. It is clear that the Army's contribution during the earthquake - from response through to reconstruction and rehabilitation - has added much to our knowledge of how to manage major disasters and the aftermath.

The people of Pakistan have always had a special faith in the Army in times of disasters and in their ability to come to the rescue. The Army's response to the earthquake honoured that faith. Responding to an emergency of this scale in such a mountainous terrain provided a complex challenge for rescuers and relief providers. Roads were gone, thousands of people were trapped in their houses and public buildings, and the population of the area was in shock. The Army's command structure, planning and organisational capabilities, logistics, communications, assets and highly trained personnel make it the only institution in Pakistan that can mobilise quickly and operate in the most difficult of circumstances. And it did.

Most of the earthquake-affected population lived in remote areas on mountainsides and in isolated valleys and they were now completely cut off and some were seriously injured. The best solution was to bring people out and to deliver medical and other assistance by air. Army Aviation flew with incredible dedication and almost without a break to rescue people from the mountains and valleys and ferry the injured to hospitals. At the same time, they conducted aerial damage assessments of the area. Flying in these mountains has its own challenges because of the unique microclimates which can create problems for helicopters. However, Army Aviation has enormously skilled pilots and extensive experience flying in such terrains so they were able to fly in sometimes quite challenging circumstances. Countless lives were saved by Aviation's rapid response and outstanding flying capabilities.

To see the destruction from the air brought home the power of the earthquake. Huge landslides took out whole mountainsides and everything and everyone in the path. Houses looked like piles of stones and matchsticks. On a flight with Army Aviation out to a village near the Line of Control, the pilot explained to me that when they first flew over many of the areas it was hard to see how many houses were destroyed because the roofs of many houses stayed intact and just pancaked down when the building crumbled beneath them. But it soon became apparent just how many were completely destroyed beneath those rooftops and that people were trapped there. On that same visit, I spoke with officers and troops who shared their own stories of what happened and the loss of colleagues in that area. Like so many Pakistanis, Army personnel lost not only colleagues but also family members and friends. One officer, I spoke with, had lost his only son. Yet, they, like their colleagues everywhere, were doing their duty to help others with unwavering commitment.

Across the devastated area, Army Engineers cleared roads and debris and repaired bridges to allow rescue and relief traffic to move around. Not long after the quake, I drove with some colleagues, along a rather treacherous road outside Balakot up the side of a somewhat unstable mountain to visit some communities in destroyed villages located at 8,000 feet to conduct an assessment of needs. It was possible to get there only because the Army had somehow managed to make this road usable. The road was fine unless one looked down at the massive drop off the edge or had to navigate around a vehicle coming in the other direction. Not really the best place for anyone afraid of heights. This road, like so many others the Army engineers re-opened in the region, became a lifeline to the people who, having lost everything, now found themselves living in tents worrying about how they would cope when winter came. But they were not left alone to fend for themselves. A small Army contingent set up camp on the mountain, to assist. This was a common feature across much of the affected area and was a valuable contribution by the Army to these communities in such hard times.

Tents and food were distributed from Army Stores. Army doctors and paramedics established field based medical facilities to treat the injured and sick. Disease is a common problem in disasters but a combined effort between Army medical teams, NGOs and civilian doctors were instrumental in keeping the distressed population healthy. There were no deaths in the 2005 earthquake due to disease.

The Army also took the lead in communications and data management, using specialised software to keep track of 'who, what, when and where' to ensure fair and equitable distribution of relief goods and services, and to avoid duplication of effort. ISPR, the public relations arm of the military, provided daily media briefings to keep the world updated on the tragedy and the needs of the affected communities. This was extremely valuable in creating awareness internationally and assisted in attracting much-needed funds and relief goods.

Foreign assistance was quick to arrive once the scale of the disaster became clear. This included military contingents from US, NATO, Japan and Australia. These were facilitated and absorbed into the system by the Army to allow them to work effectively and ensure proper coordination. The humanitarian community - UN agencies and NGOs - also arrived in large numbers and they too needed to be incorporated into the relief efforts and coordination mechanisms developed to allow them to work effectively and safely in the field. Mostly NGOs worked in the more accessible areas while the Army moved to the more inaccessible places to ensure that nobody was left out.

A Joint Aviation Coordination Cell (JACC) was established to coordinate the massive air operations to ensure timely acceptance and distribution of relief goods. More than 1,600 international flights carrying relief goods landed in Pakistan in response to appeals for assistance and this required high-skilled flight coordination and logistics to move goods quickly. The JACC brought together both Pakistan and foreign military as well as representatives from the humanitarian community. This highly successful coordination mechanism was replicated in 2010 during the floods in Pakistan; again with great success.

The presence of the Army across the affected area also provided an umbrella of security to communities, national and international relief workers and foreign military contingents to ensure their safety, and to prevent chaos and lawlessness, an unfortunate feature in many disasters.

Effective disaster response is in part, reliant on good coordination between military, and the civilian humanitarian community. Militaries and humanitarian organisations have the same goal - to save lives and ease suffering - but they have different ways of working and different guidelines and operating principles. Even the language and terminology used for certain situations can sound the same but mean different things to each side. This sometimes leads to misunderstandings and confusion. However, regular coordination meetings, sharing of information, a spirit of camaraderie and genuine willingness to find common ground between the various stakeholders helped overcome many potential problems.

The United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Pakistan at the time, Mr Jan Vandemoortele, described it as "the most successful civil and military cooperation ever".

The Army's rescue and relief efforts were certainly extraordinary and recognised by all as being the critical contribution to the successful response and saving of so many lives. But what most people now forget is the Army's involvement in the next phases - early recovery, and the $5.6 billion reconstruction and rehabilitation programme. Under the leadership of Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed, the Earthquake Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) was established for the government, to take care of the subsequent phases of the disaster and to rebuild the affected area. The theme was "Build Back Better" to build earthquake-proof houses and public infrastructure to ensure that in any future disaster, the loss of life and damage would be significantly reduced. The Provincial Earthquake Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Authority (PERRA) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the State Earthquake Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Authority (SERRA) in Azad Jammu & Kashmir, were also established to oversee the projects in each area.

This has proved over time to be enormously successful and today, the reconstruction work is almost complete. The ERRA team combined great expertise both from the Army personnel and the civilian officers. During my own time with ERRA, I saw incredible steps forward in the reconstruction and rehabilitation work. Projects in infrastructure, housing, education, health, environment, power, telecommunications, urban development, governance, livelihoods, roads, and social protection were all implemented. The newly formed organisation also introduced a Gender Equity programme which was main-streamed into all project planning to ensure the needs of both men and women were considered in the reconstruction process. This concept was relatively new to Pakistan at the time but Gender is now a normal cross-cutting theme in disaster management planning.

Around the same time as the establishment of ERRA, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was also inaugurated to become responsible for coordination of all future major disasters. NDMA's founding Chairman was also an Army General with disaster experience and even today, NDMA has a serving General as its head with a number of Army personnel working along side a mainly civilian team. ERRA's current Deputy Chairman (in effect, the CEO) is also a serving General. The importance of the Army's presence in disaster agencies is undeniable given the extensive coordination with military that becomes necessary when a disaster strikes.

So, eight years on, what have we learned from the Army's response to the 2005 earthquake and have we put the lessons into practice in subsequent disasters? Yes and, unfortunately, no. The Army clearly learned much from their response and this was evidenced by their equally impressive response to the 2010 floods in Pakistan. They continue to improve their training and have introduced disaster management courses at some military colleges. But what of the rest of the disaster 'community'?

Today there is an institution-alised civilian disaster management system in place through NDMA and its provincial counterparts, the Provincial Disaster Management Authorities. Under the 18th Amendment into the Constitution, disaster management was devolved to the provinces with the centre having a coordinating role, especially where a disaster crosses provincial boundaries. However, although it is envisaged in the National Disaster Management Act, no civilian response force has been raised nor is it likely to be in the near future due to the prohibitive cost. Therefore, the Army still has a huge role to play in all future disasters to support the coordination authorities in relief efforts. In the huge 2010 floods which affected the lives of 20 million people, the Army was again the main responder in the rescue and relief phase saving thousands of lives and bringing comfort to millions.

An important legacy from the earthquake and the military leadership of ERRA at its inception was the 'Build Back Better' theme. This is critical not only in earthquakes areas but in all development across the country to reduce the impact of disasters. In the 2010 floods, despite a very determined and prolonged negotiation, NDMA was unable to push this theme through, as they did not have control of the reconstruction and rehabilitation programme. This was unfortunate. However, many organisations are today working on projects in disaster risk reduction and disaster risk management and this will continue to grow. It is hoped that in time, this will be mainstreamed into all development planning and eventually the country will have safe infrastructure, houses and public buildings.

Although we look back at 2005 and remember the excellent civil-military coordination, it appeared to be less effective in the 2010 floods. Good civil-military coordination is critical in large disasters but there seemed to be less willingness by some humanitarian agencies to engage in some way with the Army to ensure harmonisation of effort and rapid deployment of relief goods, than in the earthquake. The civil-military guidelines and organisational principles, under which many humanitarian agencies work, sometimes create difficulties in coordination because they preclude them from engaging with military in the field. A better understanding of what those guidelines for humanitarians are and how they impact on the way humanitarian organisations work, would be useful for the military.

Of equal importance, perhaps more so, is for the humanitarian community to understand the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) under which the Army operates at such times, as they are in control of the affected areas in the initial stages. Although each side can and should work separately, it would be more helpful to the communities if there was better cooperation in the field. Harmony can be achieved through understanding and flexibility to account for the ground realities that we find in Pakistan. More work still needs to be done to align these perspectives and find workable solutions.

Out of all this tragedy has come a whole community of people from both the civil and military sectors who were there at the time of the relief efforts. It was a tough time and few who were there will ever forget it. The international nature of disaster management work often still brings us together on different assignments. Some of the strongest memories everyone has of that time are of an extraordinary combined civil-military effort, friendships forged in difficult working conditions, an abiding fondness for Pakistan and the generosity and hospitality of its people even in tough times, and great respect for the Pakistan military's disaster capabilities.

Since 2005 the Army have responded to a number of disasters, large and small, including the Attabad Lake crisis, the Air Blue crash, the 2010, 2011 and 2012 floods, the Bhoja Air crash, the Siachen Glacier avalanche which killed many of their own troops, and earthquakes in Balochistan. They have saved countless lives and contributed much to better processes to reduce the impact of disasters on lives and property.

By a sad coincidence, as I was writing what was to be the final few sentences of this article, I was alerted to the news that the Army is once again responding to an earthquake, this time in the remote region of Awaran in Balochistan where a powerful quake of 7.7 has struck killing hundreds of people and injuring many. Again the Army is at the heart of rescue and relief efforts. Army Aviation has been flying rescue missions and their night-flying helicopters were immediately dispatched with medical teams comprising 21 doctors and 50 paramedics. Approximately 2,000 troops have been sent in to assist on the ground and tents and food have been distributed.

This is one of several earth-quakes of this magnitude to strike this region in recent years. As the area is sparsely populated the death and injury toll is not high though no less tragic for the communities there that have suffered great loss. Should a quake of this magnitude strike in or near a major urban centre like Karachi, the destruction would be unimaginable. Again this highlights the point that the country needs to be prepared through the mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction in planning to ensure buildings and populations are less vulnerable, and the need to remain in a state of disaster preparedness. Much more needs to be done by the appropriate authorities to ensure this happens. The cost of implementing the necessary programmes is far less than the economic shock to the country that results from a major disaster.

Although Pakistan now has civilian disaster management agencies with the responsibility to coordinate, with no dedicated civilian response force in place to conduct the rescue and relief operations, the task will continue to fall to the Army for the foreseeable future. There is no doubt they will be up to the challenge.

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The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations' Consultant based in Islamabad where she consults for government, donors, and UN agencies. [email protected]

 (Courtesy Hilal Magazine)


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