Monday, 27 October 2008

Earthquake in Kashmir: A Question of Responsibilities

[Written in October 2005.]

The earthquake that struck Pakistani Kashmir and neighbouring states on Saturday 8 October 2005 killed more people than the 16-year-old territorial conflict that has convulsed the area. Pakistan's President has described the catastrophe as "a test of the nation" and Jan Engelund, the chief disaster relief administrator for the United Nations called it "the worst logistical nightmare that the UN has ever faced."

The world community's response to this pitiful situation has been, to say the least, sluggish. Could it be that we are witnessing 'donor fatigue' on a scale never before seen? If that is so, what are the implications for the next large disaster to be declared internationally, and for the global relief system in general?

Once again in Kashmir a familiar story has played itself out. The elements are common enough to be almost banal:-

* chronic lack of preparedness in an area whose susceptibility to large earthquakes is known in great detail

* spectacular collapses, and associated heavy mortality, in large, modern, reinforced concrete buildings that were not constructed anti-seismically

* vast numbers of homeless people, especially in inhospitable high mountain areas where traditional housing has collapsed en masse

* early relief largely in the hands of untrained, unequipped local people, especially regarding the rescue of trapped survivors

* foreign rescuers arriving in large numbers (and at huge cost), but substantially after the end of the 'golden period' in which significant numbers of people can be rescued from the rubble of collapsed buildings

* rumours and scare-mongering about disease epidemics

* chronic shortage of basic necessities

* inability to provide shelter in a climatically hostile environment

* slowness and inefficiency in the delivery of basic aid and relief

* military organisation dominates over civil protection, which represents a failure to adjust relief mechanisms adequately to civilian needs.

A response like this engenders a sense of weariness and defeat. It has been endlessly repeated in history, yet human organisation, resources, science and technology are perfectly capable of improving it. As sentient beings we are all responsible for the failure to protect, though obviously some of us are more responsible than others, yet the attitudes revealed in debate on the tragedy suggest that no one is assuming that responsibility. Yet regression back to the concept of "Act of God" betokens not only negligence but also a somewhat insulting attitude to the Higher Power who, many people believe, gave us the ability to think and act.

All disasters involve elements that are common and those that are unique, or at least distinctive. Regarding the latter, UNESCO has been widely quoted as stating that the Kashmiri earthquake has destroyed 140,000 schools (see contemporary UN-OCHA situation reports). This number is so preposterously large--in fact it is probably equivalent to the total number of schools of all kinds in a medium-sized European country--that one can only hope it is a misprint or an exaggeration. By comparison, the loss of 3000 schools in the Boumerdes, Algeria, earthquake of 2003 seemed an excessively large number at the time. Likewise, there have been suggestions that more than 60 per cent of the approximately 50,000 deaths in Kashmir involved school children. On the basis of past trends, calculations by Wisner et al. (2005) concerning seismic safety in schools suggested a death rate of fewer than 5000 pupils per decade, and yet here we have a putative 32,000 fatalities in schools during a single earthquake!

Rather than pointing to errors on the part of Wisner et al. (2005), this discrepancy highlights the difficulty of extrapolating trends in the occurrence and nature of disasters, which produce notoriously irregular statistics (IFRCRCS 1993-2005). It also highlights a chronic failure to advance development and reduce vulnerability.

As I write, helicopter landing pads are hastily being built in the ruined villages of the Kashmiri Himalayas, but rather too late to deliver the vital early supplies of relief goods. Prior to this, helicopter pilots encountered numerous difficulties in consigning their loads to the villages: packages rolled down slopes into rivers, people congregated under the hovering aircraft so that nothing could safely be thrown out. It is a principle of civil protection, all too often ignored, that workers on the ground should understand the use of helicopters in disaster relief even if they never have to travel in them, as such people will inevitably have to direct the landing of these extremely useful vehicles, and probably do other work with them. Moreover, for each village to have a landing area requires no great allocation of resources: it merely needs spades, muscles, knowledge and some basic organisation. In fact, as I write I look out of the window of my study, in a small hilltop town, at a helicopter landing pad, built very cheaply to appropriate specifications and not infrequently used in emergencies both large and small. In sum, organisation is not a luxury and it should be afforded by all communities at risk. It does, however, require transfer of expertise to where it is needed.

To return from the local to the global scale, we live in an epoch in which human resources are regarded as cheap and expendable. The dominance of capital over labour means that the world economy lacks concern with the need to protect its workforces (Alexander 2000: 98). It has therefore failed to promote an adequate global effort to reduce the impact of disasters. Hence, in the 21st century the world's least developed areas, many of which are in high mountain ranges, are only as well protected as they were 250 years ago--or worse off, given the rise in populations and diffusion of an aseismic mass-produced building stock (Kalvoda and Rosenfeld 1998, Xu and Rana 2005).

Confronted with repeated disasters the world community seems to have adopted an ice-cream parlour mentality. In October 2005 earthquakes suddenly became the "flavour of the month". Before that it was hurricanes, with Katrina and Rita in the Gulf of Mexico; and before that it was terrorism, preceded by tsunamis. Despite the best efforts of international bodies such as the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, a knee-jerk response to disasters still predominates. Post-impact relief still vastly overshadows pre-impact preparedness.

It is a well-established principle of risk management that, when a problem is chronic or serious, the first expenditures on reducing it achieve disproportionately high rates of risk reduction per unit of money spent. As more and more resources are devoted to the problem, the benefit-cost ratio narrows until it reverses and further expenditure, however desirable it may be in other terms, is no longer economically justified (Crouch and Wilson 1982). In Kashmir, as in many other parts of the world, risk reduction is at such a primitive level that spectacular results could be achieved with minimal science, basic technology and relatively modest investments (Coburn et al. 1984). This is the magic of know-how, but the world does not seem adequately to have learnt how to transfer knowledge to where it is needed. Whether this is the result of political, military and cultural obstacles or is simply due to the indifference of decision-makers is a moot point.

One very well-known example of this concerns the role of foreign rescue teams in disasters, such as earthquakes, in which large numbers of victims are trapped alive. Rates of rescue begin to diminish exponentially after 6-8 hours from the moment of impact, but the rescue teams do not begin to arrive until 28-30 hours later. Commonly, between 1000 and 2000 rescuers will fly in, but only a few score victims will be rescued alive. If knowledge, training and a minimum of equipment had previously been transferred into the area local teams could dramatically have increased the rate of rescue and could have reduced costs from an estimated US$1 million per victim saved to figures as low as 50 cents per person. Likewise, the international deployment of field hospitals, at about US$1 million per unit, is much more expensive and less efficient than investing in existing local medical centres so that they are able to continue functioning after disaster (PAHO 2003). Finally, areas at risk of large earthquakes need a resident corpus of doctors and nurses who are trained in disaster medicine and epidemiology (Andersen 2001). The experience, and sadly in many cases the inefficiency, of doctors in Kashmir illustrates that there is no substitute for detailed local knowledge when organising measures to ensure the health of survivors, but it also shows that specialised medical aid is needed in minutes, not days after the impact.

The contextual model of disasters promoted by Mitchell et al. (1989) indicates that the Kashmiri earthquake should be seen in the context of both trends in society and other events that compete with it for attention. Regarding society, over the last 150 years the world has swung from liberal to social and back to neoliberal ideologies. Self-reliance is now as popular a concept as it was in the 19th century, though in some cases mitigated by the concept of a "third way" in which people should be assisted to become self-reliant.

There is no doubt that failure to involve local people in preparing for disasters can lead to either failures of programmes for lack of popular support or dangerous forms of aid dependency. However, the world has not invested and deployed resources--especially of knowledge--in such a way as to make people resilient and self-reliant. This represents a gigantic dereliction of duty, which in part stems from a warped perception of what the modern life is actually about for a very significant portion of the world’s population. The holders and wielders of power by definition have access to technology and resources. Yet half the world's population lives in conditions that the rest would regard as too primitive to be tolerable. Moreover, they lack prominence in world affairs.

The result of this is that disasters such as the Kashmiri earthquake represent a gigantic dereliction of duty. Wisner et al. (2005) have demonstrated that failure to provide a safe environment for children's education is just as much a moral fault as failing to provide education at all, and yet thousands of schools have collapsed on children in Kashmir. A minor tax on investments and capital transfers could have provided the resources to avoid such a tragedy in the Himalayas and anywhere else in the world where it might next occur, yet the leaders of the world's financial system have rejected that initiative.

The debate on recovery and reconstruction in Kashmir will inevitably merge with that on the redevelopment of areas devastated by the Indonesian tsunami of December 2004. Interesting dialogues and symbioses may be generated if it also joins the debate on reconstructing the Gulf coast of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. The literature on disasters is voluminous (my own bibliographies contain 14,000 entries), but almost none of it is devoted to the most fundamental aspect of all, the moral philosophy that should guide relief and development (Beatley 1989).

In a previous paper (Alexander ms.) I argued that although the tsunami of 26 December 2005 reaped a massive death toll and affected ten countries, the value of damage was too small to stimulate a fundamental change in the way the world tackles disasters, especially as the tsunami's effect on the global financial system was negligible. In effect, I was looking for a sudden turning point, of the kind that would occur if a major Tokyo earthquake caused damage valued in the trillions of dollars. However, it could be that the cumulative effect of major disasters forces the world community's hand in the same way.

It is clear that a radical change in the world's approach to disasters is needed, with far greater attention to prevention and preparedness. Perhaps we should begin by tackling the matter at the most fundamental level in order to ascertain and apportion the moral responsibilities for the safety of populations that inhabit risk zones. No one is entirely free of responsibility, and that is especially true of political leaders.


Alexander, D.E. 2000. Confronting Catastrophe: New Perspectives on Natural Disasters. Terra Publishing, Harpenden, U.K., and Oxford University Press, New York, 282 pp.

Alexander, D. (unpublished MS). A survey of the field of hazard and disaster studies.

Andersen, V. 2001. Training of medical teams on-site for individual and coordinated response in emergency management. International Journal of Emergency Management 1(1).

Beatley, T. 1989. Towards a moral philosophy of natural disaster mitigation. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 7(1): 5-32.

Coburn, A., R. Hughes, D. Illi, D. Nash and R. Spence 1984. The construction and vulnerability to earthquakes of some building types in the northern areas of Pakistan. In K.J. Miller (ed.) The International Karakoram Project, Vol. 2. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 226-252.

Crouch, E.A.C. and R. Wilson 1982. Risk-Benefit Analysis. Ballinger, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 240 pp.

IFRCRCS 1993-2005. World Disasters Reports (see sections on disaster data provided by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium). International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Geneva.

Kalvoda, J. and C.L. Rosenfeld (eds) 1998. Geomorphological Hazards in High Mountain Areas. GeoJournal Library no. 46. Springer, Dordrecht, 328 pp.

Mitchell, J.K., N. Devine and K. Jagger 1989. A contextual model of natural hazard. Geographical Review 79(4): 391-409.

PAHO 2003. PAHO guidelines for the use of foreign field hospitals in the aftermath of sudden-impact disaster. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine 18(4): 278-290.

Wisner, B., I. Kelman, T. Monk, J.K. Bothara, D. Alexander, A.M. Dixit, D. Benouar, O.D. Cardona, R.C. Kandel and M. Petal 2009. School seismic safety: falling between the cracks? In C.M. Rodrigue and E. Rovai (eds) Earthquakes. Routledge Hazards and Disasters Series. Routledge, London.

Xu Jianchu and G. Rana 2005. Living in the mountains. Know Risk. ISDR Secretariat, Geneva, and Tudor Rose, London: 196-199.