Kashmir: brothers in aid

Michel Thieren
16 October 2005

The Kashmir earthquake is still claiming its victims, but Michel Thieren sees humanitarian and political lessons from hurricane Katrina being applied in its painful aftermath.

Within two months of each other, two tragedies on an epic scale – hurricane Katrina and the earthquake centred on Pakistan-administered Kashmir – have devastated the environments and blighted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Do they offer any lessons in how humanitarian work today should operate?

The main reason to compare the two events is not to focus on collateral matters – the lack of preparedness plans, delays in external aid, inappropriate assistance, mismanagement, even if all are important – but to ask if each disaster brings any fresh understanding that the world can learn from and implement for “next time”.

The response to Katrina was, as I argued in an earlier openDemocracy article, a failure at every level: political, ethical and technical. The humanitarian reaction to Kashmir, a catastrophe which appears to be at least forty times as great in human terms – the numbers estimated killed are rising at the time of writing – has been belated and disorganised; yet, given the inaccessible terrain, it still contrasts favourably with New Orleans.

The aid is present in many areas on the ground, officials are uncoordinated but definitely in charge. Moreover, Pakistan’s acceptance of help from India (and indeed from American Jewish charities) is one signal of refreshing political openness in the aftermath.

Also on the Kashmir earthquake in openDemocracy:

Maruf Khwaja, “Pakistan’s mountain tsunami”

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If Katrina revealed hitherto concealed divides of race and poverty in the United States, Kashmir has unmasked a politically and socially destitute population neglected and under-resourced for more than fifty years. The scenes of dead children among their poorly-built and now collapsed schools confirm the definition of poverty elaborated by Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen: that it is multidimensional.

Any reconstruction effort to address the reality of poverty in the region can only be long-term. But much can also be done in the short term too to minimise suffering and aid recovery.

A good attitude to begin with is to recognise three traditional and misleading beliefs associated with earthquakes, to correct them and to act accordingly: that earthquakes induce massive population displacement, that they create a huge demand in surgical and hospital care, and that the dead bodies of their victims pose an imminent epidemic risk. None of these are scientifically or medically sound.

First, seismic events – unlike hurricanes and floods – do not create massive population displacement. People do move in search of medical help, food and basic items of sustenance, but their dominant attitude is to protect what remains of their assets around their home. Thus, large-scale evacuation plans are not a priority in relation to seismic events, and it would be very harmful to induce such movement through inappropriate offers of shelter.

Second, the burden of injuries requiring surgical care and hospital attention after an earthquake is often overestimated; epidemiological studies suggest it is usually under 10% of those affected (a figure that, in this particular case, may be reassessed given the extent of the damage and the difficulties of reaching the victims). Thus, proper on-site triage is far preferable to indiscriminate medical evacuation – which could clog scarce resources, lead to unequal care and create an unnecessary sense of injustice.

Third, the belief that the unburied dead tend to bring epidemics to the survivors is scientifically unfounded. The emergency disposal of cadavers both generates politically contentious statistical flaws and overlooks the critical importance – for a society to grieve, recover and reconcile – of identifying the dead.

Also by Michel Thieren in openDemocracy:

“There was genocide in Srebrenica. And it continues to win…” (July 2005)

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

The ground of humanitarian response is mined with many other myths, all of which can result in powerful political booby-traps. In 1990, I led a vaccination campaign to counter a measles outbreak in a refugee camp in southeast Asia where various population groups were in political opposition to each other. The act of immunising the children – all together and at the same time – provided me with ample evidence that health and humanitarian assistance can be a bridge for peace. In 1994, by contrast, Hutu parents on the Zairean border after the genocide in Rwanda interpreted their children’s mass immunisation as an act of sterilisation, and this led to collective violence. I realised there the risk of operating in a highly divided and traumatised political environment.

When victims and even survivors are still being recovered in Kashmir, it is too early to make definitive judgments. But within their respective tragic contexts, it seems that the humanitarian dynamics in Kashmir may have the healing potential that was – and remains – blatantly missing in Louisiana. In both regions, it is the responsibility of governments and agencies to act professionally to secure lives and livelihoods – and to think for the long term.

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