Kashmir's earthquake: don't care or don't know?

Beena Sarwar
14 November 2005

The Kashmir death-toll is rising yet aid remains a trickle. Beena Sarwar asks why and calls for action.

My 9-year old daughter Maha knows about the earthquake that devastated Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and parts of Indian-controlled Kashmir on 8 October 2005, but she keeps saying: “hurricane – sorry, I mean earthquake…”. It is hardly surprising – our arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts from Karachi, Pakistan on 27 August coincided with the build-up of hurricane Katrina before it smashed into Louisiana. Television was full of the threat and then the devastation as Maha began school the following week. Like her classmates, she contributed to her school’s hurricane-relief drive. For weeks she has pounced on all the small change from grocery shopping and deposited her pocket money into the “hurricane jar” in her classroom.

The Kashmir earthquake has already claimed more than 79,000 lives according to official figures; unofficial estimates put the number closer to 100,000. Whichever is closest to the truth, the figure is likely to double as winter sets in. In that case, it will approach the 200,000 casualties of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.

Also in openDemocracy on the Kashmir earthquake:

Jan McGirk, “Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake”

Maruf Khwaja, “Pakistan’s mountain tsunami”

Muzamil Jaleel, “Kashmir’s tragic opportunity”

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Katrina left a little over 1,200 people dead and displaced half a million. “Misery links victims of quake, hurricane; Scope of Pakistan crisis much larger, however”, is how the Baton Rouge Advocate headlined Robert Tanner’s report from Battal, Pakistan (22 October 2005). Tanner had also covered the aftermath of Katrina. He said that the earthquake’s aftermath was “much crueller”.

Those wounded in the mountains have far nastier injuries than those hit by a hurricane or tsunami. Much of the earthquake area is accessible only on foot or by helicopter (these have often been grounded by bad weather as winter sets in). With scant medical facilities, doctors are being forced to carry out amputations without anaesthesia, even on children.

The earthquake made over 3.3 million homeless; and the earthquake victims are shelter-less in sub-zero temperatures.

Aid workers call this place more difficult to work in even than Darfur. Unicef calls it “the children's catastrophe" because of the large number of children who are homeless and at risk – between 1.6 and 2.2 million. United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan calls this aspect of the crisis even worse than the tsunami.

But compared to the generosity witnessed after the tsunami, the world’s response has been miserly. The tsunami of December 2004 catalysed $10 billion in disaster relief for its victims – marginally less than the $10.5 billion the United States Senate proposed for Katrina’s victims (to which President Bush committed a further $51.8 on 7 September).

In contrast, Pakistan has received only $630 million so far, out of the minimum $5 billion urgently needed. There are three evident reasons for this: “donor fatigue” after repeated disasters in the past year; unease about giving money to a nuclear-armed, military-led nation unable to contain the religious militancy breeding within its borders; and concerns about help not reaching those that need it most (something not helped by reports about over-extended armed forces refusing non-government organisations a free hand in distributing tents and other relief).

There may be more western corporate interests in the tsunami areas, but this still doesn’t explain the relatively little corporate aid to the earthquake – India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan receive about the same meagre percentage of foreign direct investment, 1% of their gross domestic product.

Whatever the case, the scale of the human need demands that governments and donors work out, and fast, how to bring aid to those who are suffering.

“Donor fatigue” doesn’t explain the relative silence of media that normally thrive on disaster. The few reports trickling in from the earthquake zone remain blips in the overall media radar. Despite stunning photographs and excellent reporting on how precarious life is without tents and aid, these reports are mostly buried in the inside pages. The contrast with the sustained and prominent reporting on the Asian tsunami and hurricane Katrina is stark.

Do western media lack interest because the earthquake struck an unfamiliar, far-off area?

Beena Sarwar is OpEd and features editor of The News International in Pakistan, and is currently on a year-long Nieman Fellowship for Journalists in the United States.

This article was first published in The News International, 13 November 2005.

Also by Beena Sarwar in openDemocracy:

“The media in Pakistan: a new era?” (December 2001)

Katrina struck the United States itself. The tsunami hit popular tourist destinations during peak holiday season, directly affecting hundreds of westerners; survivors gave the media great eye-witness interviews.

“There are no westerners in Kashmir,” says David Ropeik, an Instructor in Risk Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health. “We don’t know that area, and can’t identify with the earthquake victims. The feeling is that this doesn’t affect ‘us’.”

Might this change if the media played its due role? That’s the hope of the organisers of an online petition called “Save lives by urging media to provide coverage for earthquake in South Asia”; and in an effort to highlight the issue, an umbrella group of concerned organisations held a world-wide vigil on 8 November, one month after the quake struck. The vigil was observed in thirty American cities, together with Amsterdam and Lahore; many of those involved plan to continue their efforts to bring the earthquake to further public and media attention.

Meanwhile, the donations jar in Maha’s class, recently relabelled “earthquake relief”, remains nearly empty. “They don’t know about it enough”, she figures. They don’t know that more 15,000 children died when their schools collapsed over them during the earthquake, and that 10,000 children may well die from hypothermia in the next two weeks, unless the world wakes up – now.

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