ALTHOUGH the epicentre of Tuesday’s earthquake, measuring a potentially devastating 7.8 on the Richter scale, was in Iran, the bulk of the damage has been borne by Pakistan — and, tragically, that too by villagers who were extremely poor and marginalised by even domestic standards. The number of dead and injured has been mercifully low in proportion to the scale of the tremor, but thousands have been affected as their mud houses have collapsed in the Balochistan border area of Mashkail. The Pakistan Army has deployed men and helicopters to perform rescue operations and provide medicine, food and other essentials; these efforts should be boosted by those of a concerned citizenry in other parts, not least because images from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake have not yet ceased to haunt.
That the damage was limited to the border area of sparsely populated Balochistan is merely the result of chance; an earthquake is impossible to predict. Are Pakistan’s settlements and society prepared for such a disaster, particularly given that several inhabited areas lie along earthquake fault lines? The chaotic manner in which thousands of people tumbled out of their homes and offices in Karachi on Tuesday provides a clue. Nowhere were any building evacuation plans in evidence. The various strategies supposedly prepared by disaster management authorities have hardly been disseminated among the public, and it is quite clear that many of our urban areas would present an apocalyptic picture if struck by an earthquake. From the unregulated construction of high-rise buildings to patchy zoning and building laws, the unbridled expansion of cities — Karachi in particular — means that they would become death traps. Questions can legitimately be asked about the state’s ability to respond to disaster, but that is only half the story. Disaster-mitigation starts with preparedness: ensuring that construction is stringently regulated and conforms to safety standards, that evacuation plans are formulated and practised, that the administration does not panic even as people do. Here, again, it would seem the state is failing.