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Special report: The Awaran earthquake – Fear in a handful of dust

Updated Nov 03, 2013 09:51pm

Special report: The Awaran earthquake – Fear in a handful of dust

Sumaira Jajja

A little girl rummaging through the rubble of a collapsed mud house. -Photos by ISPR and White Star
A little girl rummaging through the rubble of a collapsed mud house. -Photos by ISPR and White Star

Dust and dust storms are all that one sees in Awaran. When the haze clears, it is only to reveal abject poverty, lawlessness, an utter lack of governance and, of course, the death and destruction caused by the recent earthquake. This is one of the most neglected parts of Pakistan’s most neglected province, and the fruits of that neglect are bitter indeed.

Some journalists call Awaran ‘the hotbed of the biggest insurgency in Pakistan’, with the army and separatists being the ‘real’ stakeholders. Each has its own wins and losses to proclaim and its own version of events to disseminate to the media, and thus on to the people. The fog of war hangs in the air, making it hard to see those who pay the price: the inhabitants of this forsaken land.

They hardly feature in these conflicting narratives, these dispossessed that do not conveniently fit into either the ‘traitor’ or ‘patriot’ category. What they do is that they feel. They feel hungry, they fall prey to not just disease, but also frustration at the lack of opportunities and the lack of hope that someday, something may change for the better. And when you ask them about their lives, the first emotion they express is surprise.

“Are you really going to write about me?” This is what Amina, an expecting mother said when asked about her losses in the September 24 earthquake. After getting an affirmative response, she looked towards her mother-in-law. Once the ageing matriarch gave her approval, Amina spoke at length about living in a tent, separated from the elements by only a thin sheet of fabric, like so many other earthquake survivors.

“I have been getting relief goods but so far no one has come forward to help us in rebuilding our homes,” she says. A resident of Jakaro, she says that they had barely fixed their home which was damaged by the preceding years’ heavy rainfall. Then the earthquake struck, and all was reduced to rubble.

Awaran is prone to natural calamities, with earthquakes and flash floods being the most hazardous.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
Awaran is prone to natural calamities, with earthquakes and flash floods being the most hazardous.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

Seeing Amina talk, other women in the cramped examination room of District Headquarter Hospital Awaran also began to speak up about their ordeal. Some had lost homes, others lost family members.

Even the men accompanying them, frustrated with a lack of jobs and steady income, admit to feeling emasculated. They are unable to provide for their families, and the fear of more devastation — whether natural or manmade — is etched in their weary eyes.

Falling through the cracks

A month has passed since the earthquake rocked the Awaran and Kech districts of Balochistan, an expanse with a total area of 40,000 square kilometres. Measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale, its epicenter was 120km south-west of Khuzdar in district Awaran. Some 386 people died in the quake, and thousands of homes were destroyed. So intense was the quake that it was felt in many cities of Pakistan and resulted in a new island emerging near Gwadar.

Balochistan is no stranger to natural disasters. Earlier this year, an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit Southern Iran, with the tremors causing substantial damage in Balochistan’s District Washuk’s Tehsil Mashkhel. Thirty-five deaths were confirmed by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) back then. Then there were the quakes in 2007 and 2009 in Ziarat and the floods in 2010 onwards. Much before that, there was the 1935 Balochistan earthquake, where in Quetta alone over 20,000 casualties were reported. That toll in a single quake remained unmatched until the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake, in which some 90,000 people lost their lives.

Scores of mud built houses were destroyed in the 7.7 magnitude quake.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
Scores of mud built houses were destroyed in the 7.7 magnitude quake.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

But it isn’t just the relatively lower casualty count that makes the response to the Awaran quake different from the others.

The area features lowest on all development indicators, be it education, health, food security or the economy. It is also arguably the least governed place in Pakistan.

In the crosshairs

Then there is the fact that it happened in an area that is the hometown of Dr Allah Nazar, a Baloch separatist leading the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).

“Awaran was an ungoverned space for the last ten years and providing relief and following it up with rehabilitation is a difficult task, which requires massive planning and finances,” says Dr Mohammad Akbar, Commissioner Kalat.

He stressed that security remains the biggest issue with insurgents “doing anything and everything possible to stop aid delivery and rehabilitation. But that does not mean we stop and give up.”

Echoing similar sentiments is Major Gen Samrez Salik who is leading the relief and rehabilitation operation in Awaran.

Food and other relief supplies for the quake victims.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
Food and other relief supplies for the quake victims.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

“The army is here to help our fellow Pakistanis and we do not intend to carry out an operation,” he said.

He was one of the army officials to have survived an attack last month when rebels fired rockets at a helicopter carrying the NDMA chief Major General Saeed Aleem.

Despite what the army claims as repeated attacks on security personnel as well as on the local population who were allegedly beaten by insurgents for taking relief goods, the army says it has exhibited maximum restraint while the ISPR also denied conducting an operation in Awaran and Mashkey.

Stressing repeatedly that the army would not indulge in combat, Major General Aleem was however unable to give a timeframe as to when the army would move out.

“The armed forces of Pakistan are mandated to assist in natural calamities and that is what they are doing in Awaran as well,” says Brig Mirza Kamran Zia, spokesperson of the NDMA.

Naturally, there are dissenting views. A Baloch Students Organisation representative insists that the army has its own plans and goals, and that these do not include caring for the wellbeing of the Baloch people.

“The government should allow international aid to come and let impartial NGOs carry out relief and rehabilitation work. We do not need the army’s aid and time and again our people have refused it,” he says.

He also alleged that an operation was being conducted and that “people are being forced out of the area.”

“Large numbers of people are leaving Mashkay and other areas. These people are already hard-pressed for food and aid and now they have been forced to leave their homes,” he said.

When questioned if there is a solution to this mess, a BLF supporter, on condition of anonymity, said: “The democratic set-up must be allowed and civil administration must be empowered. It’s fine if the army is doing relief work but it should now leave. Military and intelligence agencies must back off and let government rule prevail.” This is clearly not the official line of the BLF, which otherwise claims it wants nothing short of an independent state.

The past is not another country

“On March 12, I move my camp some 18 miles down to the rest house of Awaran, situated on the left bank of the Mashkai river at an elevation of about 1,750 feet where the direct overland line of the Indo-European telegraph running from Karachi to Panjgur and Kirman passes,” wrote explorer and surveyor Sir Aural Stein in the year 1929 in ‘An Archaeological Tour to Gedrosia’. In the chapter titled ‘Ruined mounds of Buzdad and Awaran’, he described the town’s poverty and dependence on the vagaries of climate for its survival.

Little has changed since then. In fact, poverty has increased and so has the remoteness of the area due to the utter lack of a communications network. Add to this the fact that there has been no governance for over a decade now, rehabilitating Awaran remains a tough task.

Development agencies say that even if the number of affected population is low, some 200,000 people as compared to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake (3.5 million) and the 2010 floods (1.5-1.8m), the situation is no less horrible.

People gather to get relief goods.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
People gather to get relief goods.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

A rapid assessment conducted by 11 non-governmental organisations across 296 villages in Awaran and Kech districts, states that 80 per cent of the houses have been damaged or destroyed. Due to widespread poverty across villages, only 7pc of the affected households have adequate resources to buy food. In terms of health, 54pc of health facilities are destroyed and 46pc are partially damaged. Malaria, respiratory tract infections, diarrhoea and skin diseases are widespread.

No Entry

The biggest criticism the government has received so far is based on its not allowing international NGOs (INGOs) in the area and instead relying on the Army and, to a lesser extent, local NGOs.

This was not the case in 2005, when Pakistan was widely praised for its relief activities, not just by local and international NGOs but also the UN.

Back in 2006, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Abu Diek commented: “Cooperation between [the] UN and [the] military has been exceptionally unprecedented. The UN has to rewrite its books about civil/military cooperation.”

This time around however, the decision to involve the army and the exclusion of international agencies was critiqued, with nationalists accusing the army of occupying Balochistan in the garb of providing relief. “At this point, we are more focused on delivering aid,” says a government official in response to a question about INGOs access. “The government can manage the disaster on its own and that’s the reason why we did not appeal internationally for assistance. Getting INGOs onboard would mean diverting our human resources towards their protection,” a government official said.

Volunteer workers help distribute rice and flour bags.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
Volunteer workers help distribute rice and flour bags.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

He recalled that all United Nations operations were shutdown after the kidnapping of UNHCR sub office Chief John Solecki in 2009. Solecki was said to be kidnapped by the Balochistan Liberation United Front while the then interior minister Rehman Malik had alleged that Brahamdagh Bugti was behind the move. “Unicef had stopped its relief activities in the earthquake stricken districts of Ziarat and Pishin and the communities there were left in a lurch,” he recalled.

“Awaran is a difficult area. If something happens to a relief provider of an INGO, all of them will shut down operations and leave. We cannot afford to have that happen. The government is committed to help alleviate the status of the people in Awaran and our development roadmap is taking shape. The local NGOs have shown remarkable bravery in working in a hostile area,” he added.

None of the local NGO workers have been attacked so far by the insurgents.

In response to Dawn’s question about the aid flow that seems to be decreasing and the challenges that the people would be facing, UN OCHA representative Dan Teng’o said that in addition to continuing the current relief work, it is crucial to take a special notice of the expected drop in temperature in winter (potentially to extreme low) and the impact this is likely to have in terms of further worsening the conditions of affected communities.

It is worth noting that a Dawn report published earlier highlighted that the UN had no physical presence in the area and there were no projects by UN development agencies.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders is an INGO that was denied access in Awaran despite the fact that it has many programmes running in various districts of Balochistan. Like the UN, for MSF too Awaran is alien territory.

Doctors at a medical camp.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
Doctors at a medical camp.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

In a recently published column, Chris Locklear, MSF’s head, cited security as a reason for not being allowed in the area.

Meanwhile, security sources say another possible reason for not allowing foreign NGOs in the area has to do with ‘digital mapping by vested interests’.

In the aftermath of the 2010 floods, the Ministry of Defence came up with the proposed Land Surveying and Mapping Bill 2012, according to which drafting a map by any unauthorised person is an offence.

A salient feature of the bill reads: (iv) to stop unqualified/unregistered firms from taking part in surveying and mapping activities that could pose a security risk to the state.

“During the 2010 floods, several NGOs used their relief workers in mapping information all over Pakistan, including sensitive spots. Balochistan is a sensitive zone and we cannot take any risks,” the source said.

A Dawn news report dated 19th November 2012 quotes the NDMA chairman Zafar Qadir as saying that an INGO named the Information Management and Mine Action Programmes (iMMAP), continues to map flood devastated areas using the Geographic Information System (GIS) despite having been declared a ‘security risk’.

“Despite a lapse of 11 months, the iMMAP has failed to develop the web-based programme in accordance with the NDMA’s specifications. The NDMA disassociated itself from the iMMAP in January,” Dr Qadir said at the time.

The foreign ministry in a letter on April 12, 2012 said: “Presence of iMMAP in Pakistan will not only give an incorrect message internationally but can also pose serious problems for Pakistan at international fora and create confusion among the stakeholders.”

It said the mission statement of the iMMAP focused on mines clearance and it usually operated in conflict zones, and thus had no business conducting mapping in flood-affected areas.

The same report quotes an official in the economic affairs division as saying, “There is no monitoring of NGO personnel once they are given permission to help the government in emergency situations.” This, at least, is part of the reason the government is refusing to allow INGOs into Awaran.

Bulk supplies of staple food.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
Bulk supplies of staple food.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

‘Roadmap Awaran’

The government has stated that the rebuilding phase will be carried out by the Army in collaboration with the Balochistan government and NDMA.

With an area of 21,630 km², Awaran is much bigger than FATA. The metalled (black top) road that connects Awaran to neighbouring districts is 49km in length. In district profiles done by the government and NGOs, Awaran, which was turned into a separate district in 1992, has always been classified as 100 pc rural.

The area is prone to natural calamities, with earthquakes and flash floods being the most hazardous. In 2007, Awaran was affected badly after heavy rains and flash floods swept through it, leaving behind a trail of broken mud homes.

No relief package has been announced so far by the government of Balochistan or the federal government following the earthquake. A similarly apathetic attitude was shown when over 700 houses collapsed in Mashkhel earlier this year.

“The Initial Damage Assessment is almost complete and so far the numbers are pretty similar to the figures we have released in our daily reports,” says Brig Zia.

The figure released by NDMA on Oct 21 stated that 32,638 houses have been badly damaged while 14,118 suffered partial damage.

All that was left behind were ruins and rubble.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
All that was left behind were ruins and rubble.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

Getting Awaran back on its feet will be a Herculean task given that most of its government offices are non-functional and the place had negligible economic activity to begin with.

Schools exist on paper but not in reality. The few that do are barely functional, like the public school in Labach, a village 6km away from Awaran town, which has a badly damaged building. That does not mean that the desire to be educated does not exist. In fact, villagers stressed that they would like their children to go to school even in an open field, so long as there were teachers.

The DHQ Hospital Awaran is another badly neglected place. On paper, it has a staff of 20, including doctors and paramedics, but none of them actually stay in Awaran. The Medical Superintendent lives in Quetta while the paramedical staff, usually from other areas of Pakistan, is too scared to work due to safety reasons.

The entire district has only one lady medical officer, Dr Rahat Jabeen, who works as a General Practitioner and a gynaecologist. Though the DHQ Hospital has no medical equipment, Dr Jabeen says she often ends up carrying out ultrasound examinations on patients at her maternity home, a few minute’s walk away from the public facility. If one is to listen to the NDMA, all that may change for the better.

Sharing shelter and stories in a relief camp.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
Sharing shelter and stories in a relief camp.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

“We are working on the Early Recovery Plan (ERP) which envisages functional schools, hospitals, Basic Health Units (BHUs) and Rural Health Centres (RHCs) to facilitate people. Half of the water supply schemes in the area have been made functional as well,” Brig Zia claimed.

“After the early recovery plan, we will start with the Comprehensive Reconstruction Plan which will at least take two to three years. Compensation for the affected families will be decided and the focus will remain on uplifting the area,” he added.

Building without blocks

As always, this is easier said than done.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction policy stresses on strengthening community participation and resilience but in Awaran that has never happened to date. The NDMA and PDMAs work all over Pakistan with community based organisations (CBO) and NGOs but that is an unlikely case in Awaran.

“There are no NGOs working in Awaran. Some CBOs exist but they are unable to get necessary funding from donors and do not have the capacity to run advocacy campaigns let alone participate in rebuilding projects. The concept of Disaster Risk Reduction is not something the CBOs here are familiar with,” a local journalist said.

The rehabilitation efforts and rebuilding after the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake and the Attabad Lake are proof that an area can be turned around after disaster. However, the technical expertise of many NGOs that were part of the operations back then, remain unutilised.

When contacted for comments, staff at the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) said they were not in a position to speak about Awaran. While the authority did some good work, it is now on the verge of being closed down by the government.

A consultant for ERRA stressed that low-cost quake-proof housing was essential. “Mud and unbaked bricks along with wooden beams and date leaves are used for construction of homes in Awaran and most rural areas in Pakistan. A reason for the low death toll, despite the severity of the quake, is that people were living in mud houses. Those with better finances go for concrete housing but that does not mean that it is safe,” the consultant said.

On an average, constructing a proper housing unit using bricks, cement, iron beams, etc. would cost at least Rs100,000 to an individual. State run low-cost housing schemes and indigenous construction methods along with modern techniques can bring down the costs drastically.

With winter approaching, it’s crucial that for the people living in tents, some shelter is quickly made available.

Life goes on, even amid the debris.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
Life goes on, even amid the debris.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

Architect and ERRA board member Yasmin Lari says that it’s a must to focus on vernacular architecture and strengthen structures. “Learn from tradition, bring in innovation” is her logic.

She is currently training a team of Balochistan University teachers and students who have the goal of rebuilding model houses in Awaran with a grant from the Heritage Foundation. Given her experiences in the 2005 earthquake and later the floods, she has been able to come up with low-cost housing that can withstand major damage.

“Lightweight structures are essential as these are less likely to fall. Also, avoid using heavy materials for roofing. At this point I suggest 10ft x 15ft one-room units with retrofitted walls and roofs. These can be built within three weeks,” she says, stressing that work must be expedited or “the fast approaching cold weather will slow down the brick drying process and increase construction time”.

She also stresses that the community must be involved in the rebuilding process. “It’s cathartic. It’s not just the physical challenge but the psychological challenges as well that need to be considered. You build houses with them and their spirits are lifted,” she says.

Out in the cold

The residents of Awaran and Kech don’t hold out much hope. A month after the quake, their biggest concern is getting adequate supplies for the coming winters.

It is worth noting that according to an integrated food security phase classification (a set of tools and procedures to classify the nature and severity of food insecurity) conducted in March with the participation of public officials, UN agencies and other organisations related to food security, the districts of Awaran and Kech were classified Phase 3 (crisis or highly food insecure). With the impact of this earthquake, it can thus be estimated that the affected areas are now in Phase 4 (emergency) as per the classification criteria, which makes a case for immediate need of humanitarian assistance.

Dozens of natural springs, the only potable water source for local residents, disappeared after the quake, creating an acute water shortage.-Photos by ISPR and White Star
Dozens of natural springs, the only potable water source for local residents, disappeared after the quake, creating an acute water shortage.-Photos by ISPR and White Star

“Winters will make the communities vulnerable. The government needs to devise a way to provide immediate shelter or infant and child deaths will be the next big news. The media has already forgotten our plight and the aid flow is now decreasing,” says Zahid Baloch, focal person of the Awaran Disaster Response Forum, the coordinating agency in the affected area.

For now, though not being led by the dreams of a better future, the residents of Awaran and Kech are rebuilding their homes on self-help basis, ready to face the harsh winter and harsher realities as the dust around them refuses to settle.

jajja.sumaira@gmail.com