To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the devastating earthquake (EQ) of 8th October 2005, the national NGO Strengthening Participatory Organization (SPO) convened a gathering of writers, poets, columnists, civil society activists, human rights defenders, development professionals, non-government organizations and networks, United Nations and Government representatives, Boy Scouts, foreign diplomats, international NGOs and the media at its office in Islamabad.
Guests were greeted with a running slide show, video clips, banners, placards and handouts of memories of the EQ, and the unprecedented response in terms of rescue, relief and early recovery efforts of civil society.
The chief guest was the renowned icon, Kishwar Naheed, who lit the first candle in tribute to the victims and survivors, followed by a few survivors and all the participants. Reciting three moving poems she wrote in October 2005, she recounted her visits to AJK and Hazara division in the immediate aftermath.
SPO Chief Executive, Naseer Memon’s thought-provoking presentation questioned how and why a 7.6 magnitude EQ in Pakistan caused such a huge toll of death and destruction, while just a few people perished in an EQ of 9 magnitude in Japan. He called upon civil society to raise its voice against the “Bermuda Triangle” nexus of contractors, builders and building control authorities. He called for strict adherence to the standard building codes.
Development professional and human rights activist, Naheed Aziz represented the Joint Action Committee on NGOs’ Earthquake Response (JACER/NGOs), set up on 9th October 2005 in Islamabad, to coordinate the efforts of NGOs, individual activists, and a large number of student volunteers from all over Pakistan and abroad. She spoke of “the time that tested our souls”, shared her recollections and commended the well-organized, cooperative structure and process to ensure transparency and financial accountability to the affected communities, donors and philanthropists. JACER also represented NGOs and activists at the UNOCHA Clusters and Committees. Based on its first-hand experiences, JACER prepared a Charter of Demands, which is still valid even today. She questioned whether the BBB slogan means simply physical infrastructure or should it also include improving the socio-economic structure, disaster preparedness and planning.
UNOCHA was represented by Samiullah, who enumerated the various UN-recommended building codes and regulations, urgent needs assessment tools, early recovery policies, guidelines, and the UN’s coordination functions with the government and civil society.
Dr. ManzoorAwan, representing Oxfam, stated that whereas the government counts numbers of the dead and injured, for us they are individual human beings, not simple statistics. International NGOs strive to support national NGOs and government entities with technical expertise, lessons learned from their global experiences, capacity-building, disaster preparedness and risk reduction. All this is done with a human rights-based approach, paying special attention to women, children and persons with disabilities.
Representing ERRA, ShaziaHaris stressed the need for an inclusive approach; learning lessons from other countries (e.g. USA’s hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s EQ); collaboration and coordination among the various government entities dealing with emergencies and disasters; and particularly the need for data management, knowledge management, and shared data sets of vulnerable groups and professional, technical expertise within Pakistan. This is especially required in light of the 22 EQ faultlines located in Pakistan and the increasing donor fatigue. She called upon the HEC to include mandatory DRR courses/subjects in all universities; and for a ban on adoption of orphaned children.
NDMA representative, IntikhabAlam, said the government needs to set the national direction through laws, policies and action plans; adopt a systemic approach; be more proactive than reactive; learn from Japan re. disaster preparedness and response; strengthen community awareness as first responders; and work in coordination with UNOCHA and civil society stakeholders.
Human rights defender and volunteer humanitarian worker Tahira Abdullah sympathized with the survivors, 84% of whom voiced dissatisfaction with ten years of government inaction, especially in Balakot. She asked whether 75,000 or 150,000 human beings actually perished in October 2005, quoting the AJK Prime Minister’s data. She questioned why almost all government primary and secondary schools collapsed, in contrast to a few private schools, and wondered why the same government construction engineering firm was again contracted for reconstruction, despite the loud slogan of “Build Back Better”. She stated that disasters are global natural phenomena, but preventable death, injury and destruction requires bona fide intent, honesty and integrity. She presented a set of 14 demands for future DRR and response.
The Ambassador of Nepal’s solidarity message was read out, while the Ambassador of Cuba participated in the event and recalled his government’s solidarity and immediate medical response to the 2005 EQ, with 360 flights from Cuba, bringing in 240 tons of medicines, equipment and hospital supplies, hundreds of doctors, nurses and paramedics, setting up 32 field hospitals, and subsequently gifting 1000 fully funded scholarships to medical students, who have graduated and returned to serve Pakistan.
ZahidMahbub and other Boy Scouts representatives recalled their rescue and relief efforts and appreciated the volunteer spirit of students, civil society and NGOs.
Head of Sungi Foundation, Sajid Qaisrani representing the National Humanitarian Network (NHN) of NNGOs, concluded the event by reiterating that we must never forget EQ 2005; the government must act upon lessons learned, not merely speak about them; the NHN members must continue their watchdog and advocacy role with government entities, keeping a special focus on their responsibility to train the district level DDMAs in DRR preparedness as first responders.