The earthquake that hit northern Pakistan on 8 October 2005 caused widespread destruction, killing over 73,000 people, severely injuring many more and leaving millions without shelter. The affected areas of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJ&K) and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) suffered extensive structural and economic damage, with vulnerable groups in this mountainous region bearing the brunt of the disaster. The devastation was spread over 30,000 square kilometres of treacherous Himalayan terrain. Most educational institutions were destroyed, killing over 18,000 students. The majority of health care units and hospitals collapsed, the communications infrastructure was unusable and all essential utilities were disrupted; in all, the affected area was strewn with 200 million tons of debris. Hundreds of post-quake tremors and constant landslides multiplied the shock and trauma, while the onset of winter threatened the lives of the survivors. This was without question the worst natural calamity in Pakistans history; recovering from it is going to cost billion of dollars.
The role of the Federal Relief Commission
No disaster management organisation existed to handle a relief operation on such a large scale, and the existing infrastructure was either very poor or totally destroyed. Realising the gravity of the disaster, the government immediately formed the Federal Relief Commission (FRC), with a mandate to manage the entire spectrum of the relief effort:
The Federal Relief Commissioner was mandated to co-ordinate and monitor the relief efforts. He was to report directly to the prime minister. All agencies concerned with the relief and rehabilitation efforts, including cabinet, health, interior, foreign affairs; communication and information divisions would function through FRC and form a part of the team. For this purpose their reps were attached with FRC. Reps from the concerned agencies of the armed forces were also to be a part of the team.
Within days, the FRC had taken charge of the situation. The scale of the disaster, the harsh weather conditions and the collapse of civil order in the affected areas called for a response mechanism which could provide quick decision-making, coupled with the efficient execution of directives on ground. The Commission conceived and implemented an elaborate National Action Plan to ensure a coherent response, spelling out domains, policies and end-states for all the stakeholders and key players. The plan also provided for financial compensation for survivors, amounting to several billion rupees. Inter-agency coordination and the synchronisation of relief efforts were ensured through Strategic Leaders Group Meetings, which integrated the UNs cluster approach into FRC strategy, with a view to developing a common operating picture and guidelines for all the agencies concerned.
Within the FRC itself, there were two distinct wings, the military and the civilian. The military wing was responsible for undertaking the rescue and relief operation, while the civilian wing, comprising ministerial representative and coordinators, looked after inter-department and inter-agency issues. The response was based on a four-fold strategy, comprising search, rescue and relief, consequence management, recovery and rehabilitation and reconstruction. The FRC focused its operations on the first two elements, while a second agency, the Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority (ERRA), addressed rehabilitation and reconstruction needs.
Within the resource constraints, a number of simultaneous relief activities had to be instantly activated, including evacuating the injured, damage control, medical help and the provision of relief goods. Other elements of the response included addressing psychosocial trauma, the social and economic fallout and the management of displaced people. Law and order had to be maintained, and civic order restored. Some of the key challenges we faced in the immediate aftermath of the disaster concerned prioritising the different aspects of the response, the removal or rescue of the dead and injured, the need to rapidly deploy forces, difficulties around reaching remote villages and the immediate provision of shelter, food and medical aid. Throughout, the leadership and the vision of the government provided ideal working parameters and impetus to the FRC, foreign governments, donors, the public and all the government departments concerned, including the armed forces.
We were overwhelmed by the generosity of the world community and voluntary organisations, and the work of volunteers, men and women, aid workers, international organisations, NGOs and global civil society deserves the highest praise. Donors in particular need special mention for their generous support and assistance in providing relief to the earthquake victims. But equally significant was the spontaneous outpouring of compassion and generosity by the people of Pakistan, both at home and abroad, on a scale never witnessed before. From soldiers and voluntary relief workers to local NGOs and the Pakistani diaspora, each did their part to protect and help the victims. The Pakistan armed forces in general, and the army in particular, provided the backbone of the relief effort, and the degree and extent of cooperation, coordination, execution and implementation achieved have rightly been praised by national as well as international observers, and by the humanitarian community.
The worlds most successful relief operation?
It has been claimed that the earthquake response was the most successful relief operation in recent history. It holds several important lessons for us in terms of best practice for the future:
- There must be a full-time disaster management agency, with contingency plans for a quick and effective response. Ad hoc arrangements will not work in all circumstances.
- All stakeholders, including NGOs, international organisations and donors, must be taken into the governments confidence.
- We must cut through red tape wherever it adds delay.
- Speedy decision-making needs no emphasis. Provincial and district leaders should play stronger coordinating and executing roles.
- Adequate funding for the UN is necessary to enable a swift international response.
- Take the media on board by providing access, continuous interaction and sharing of data with them.
- Appropriate mechanisms should be established to track aid flows from source to end-user; the publication of this information is crucial for transparency.
- Given the inaccessibility of earthquake-affected areas and that fact that road links will always be difficult, helipads and landing strips are needed in quake-prone areas, along with enhanced radar communication for aircraft.
- The development of new strategies for disaster preparedness needs to be considered.
- Knowledge of disaster response needs to be increased within society and among the general public.
- All local and international NGOs and UN organisations must be registered, and this information must be kept up to date.
- People-centred solutions must be found. We must all constantly remind ourselves that the path of recovery is not for us to determine, but for the people who suffered.
The world community responded to the earthquake by rushing in relief items and placing assets such as helicopters, field hospitals, engineering equipment and water filtration plants at our disposal to help earthquake-affected people. I would like to thank everyone who offered priceless help to the stricken people of Pakistan.
Major-General Farooq Ahmad Khan is the Federal Relief Commissioner, Government of Pakistan.