Pakistan's mountain tsunami

Maruf Khwaja
10 October 2005

“As usual, God is being unjustly blamed for tragedies that are the consequence in large part of human failure.” Maruf Khwaja weighs the balance of cosmic justice and earthly negligence revealed by the Kashmir earthquake.

Even before the devastated coasts and archipelagos of the eastern Indian Ocean had revealed their dead after the tsunami of 26 December 2004, obscurantist mullahs in Pakistan were explaining away to the faithful the largest seaborne disaster in recorded history as “Allah’s punishment” of those who had turned His land into the “playground of the devil”.

Today, after the calamitous earthquake on 8 October centred on Pakistan-administered Kashmir, they are already calling it the “mountain tsunami”: the second visitation within a year of the “implacable wrath” of God upon an “errant, sinful humankind”. Estimates of the death and destruction in northern Pakistan – some wild, some calculated – are rapidly climbing, with the latest official approximation being 33,000; although Jean Seaton’s healthy strictures on the media “numbers game” in her openDemocracy essay suggest caution.

Among Maruf Khwaja’s writings on openDemocracy:

“Becoming Pakistani” (August 2004)

“Terrorism, Islam, reform: thinking the unthinkable” (July 2005)

“Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures” (August 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

In any case, this time the mullahs are a little less forthcoming with their sermonising, and understandably so (though the collapse of the minaret at Hazratbal shrine of the Prophet Mohammed’s only known surviving strand of hair does not bode well). For while in the Asian tsunami it was mostly the “infidels” of Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia who perished, the mountainous version of Allah’s anger has descended on many pious Muslims – and that, too, soon after the beginning of the Ramadan month of fasting.

The hard rocky terrain of Kashmir and northern Pakistan, where the land rises suddenly and steeply to meet the heavens, will not give up its dead as easily as the sea did. Inaccessibility, aggravated by the destruction of roads and bridges, lack of resources and the onset of wet weather is seriously hampering rescue and relief efforts. It will be a long time before the world finds out how just many people have been swallowed up by fallen mountains and collapsed buildings.

It will take a lot longer for survivors to rebuild their lives and the homes that fell about like cardboard boxes when the earthquake struck. Many never will. The predicament of the survivors is all the more reason for the world’s practical help and solidarity to be extended to them; many who may otherwise succumb can yet be saved as conditions worsen in the disaster’s aftermath.

The human stain

It’s a wonder then, and a demonstration of the strength of their faith, that so many Muslims still retain their penchant for simple explanations of complex things. As one TV mullah said today: the will of God doesn’t need explaining.

But what does perhaps need explaining is the part played by human neglect, ignorance and corruption in this calamity. As usual, God is being unjustly blamed for tragedies that are the consequence in large part of human failure. Many informed observers close to the shattered ground believe that at least half of the deaths can be attributed to the collapse of houses constructed of inappropriate materials and in violation of planning rules and regulations – where they exist at all.

Among the charities and campaigns raising funds for relief of the south Asian earthquake’s victims are:

Disasters Emergency Committee

International Committee of the Red Cross

International Rescue Corps

Islamic Relief

The qualification is needed. For in many parts of Pakistan, but especially in poorly governed areas like Azad “Free” (that is, Pakistan-controlled) Kashmir, planning laws barely exist, and where they do are rarely applied. Building inspectors are easily bought out by those determined to bend rules or circumvent them completely. Moreover, in mountainous areas prone to earthquakes, existing building regulations hardly ever take into account the instability of the land and the suitability of heavy building materials like steel and concrete lintels and slabs.

The level of ignorance about the susceptibility of this area to violent earthquakes, even in the higher echelons of government, is staggering. Pakistan’s information minister, interviewed by the BBC today, 11 October, seemed to know nothing about the movement of tectonic plates and the fact that the northern part of his country sits squarely on top of an unstable faultline. To him too, there was nothing but God’s will at work.

The Pakistani flaw

But even where there is some awareness of the risks to man-made structures, it is cancelled by Pakistan’s first law of town planning – corruption. A personal memory may be appropriate here. The man my father contracted to build our family’s first-ever house (in a now devastated part of Islamabad) forty years ago decided without informing us to lay down the concrete roof while the walls were only eight feet high. This raised his profit by 10% and lowered ours by a hundred – because our joy at moving into our own house was virtually eliminated by the torture of trying to sleep amid trapped heat and humidity. The ordeal lasted three seasons before an engineer told us we were three feet short of the regulation height. There was nothing to do but to sell the place for half the price it cost to build.

How do societies cope with the immediate aftermath of disaster? Also in openDemocracy, Michel Thieren – a doctor specialising in international health emergencies – writes: “(One) lesson of disaster management is that when a disaster strikes, a community has to count on itself for about three days – because external aid cannot realistically arrive within this period. This applies everywhere in the world. Broken or flooded bridges, roads, tracks, and paths are an obstacle both for those trying to flee and those trying to move in with supplies. At the same time, a journalist armed with a portable phone and cam set can often reach a disaster area by air within hours. The result is inevitable: media-fuelled frustration, unrealistic expectations about what is practically possible, and a political furore.”

See Michel Thieren’s article, “Katrina’s triple failure: technical, ethical, political” (September 2005)

Such tales are legion in Muzaffarabad, a sizeable city where the earthquake has taken a terrible toll. More than half of its buildings were built, reputedly, by money sent from Bradford, northern England, to construct second homes for émigré Kashmiris. Muzaffarabad was a congenial place for people who had become accustomed to an English physical environment and amenities – hilly countryside, a temperate climate and the civic facilities of a capital city. Moreover, land prices there compared favourably to Islamabad’s.

Typically, a Kashmiri family in Bradford (or Leeds, or Dewsbury) might put every second pound sterling saved in a kitty for a house in Muzaffarabad or further north in Balakot. Almost invariably, the new houses would be pillboxes of solid concrete, a style that first took root in Karachi in the early days of Pakistan. But not all pillbox houses are as solid as they appear: many would crumble at the touch of a hammer, because the cement/sand mixture is other than specified or (as happens often in areas like Karachi) substituted with sand from the sea.

The original inhabitants of Pakistan, as in every other society, built houses compatible with the climate and geography of their land. Something happened along the way. In the original Pakistani conception, a solid house is one that nothing less than a bulldozer could bring down – or perhaps an earthquake. Walls were made of baked clay and laid on very thick while the roofs would be relatively flimsy, just clay mixed with straw on a mesh of light wood. This made for homes that were cool in the hot weather and warm in the cold. When an earthquake did come along, or a flood swept away the dwelling, it wasn’t all that difficult to build a new home and a new life again. Not any more. Today, the pillbox style, once merely a trend, is now an irreversible movement that goes utterly against Pakistan’s natural environment and geography.

A long time ago, an organisation called the “appropriate technology cell” operated in a remote government department in Islamabad. It would suggest outlandish things that often invited public ridicule and demands to shut it down – converting domestic and farmyard refuse into gas, for example, or constructing houses from bricks made out of rice husk. “I can’t imagine myself living in a house of straw”, I remember my editor saying as he trashed a piece I had enthusiastically submitted on another pipedream of the appropriate technology cell. He was a Kashmiri. He lived in a concrete pillbox not far from ours; when he retired he moved to another in salubrious Muzaffarabad. I wonder if he survived?

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