LEADERSHIP ON TRIAL: THE EARTHQUAKE
At eight fifty-two Atvi on October 8, 2005, the world literally fell apart for millions of Pakistanis. An earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale struck our mountainous, inaccessible northern region, affecting the North-West Frontier Province and Azad Kashmir, bringing death and destruction in a few seconds, and leaving complete havoc in its wake. It affected an area of nearly 12,000 square miles (30,000 square kilometers) and left 3.5 million homeless; 73,000 dead; 500,000 homes and buildings destroyed; most educational and health facilities obliterated; and all government structures demolished. Even our capital, Islamabad, was affected when a high-rise apartment building called Margalla Towers collapsed, killing many residents and burying hundreds under its rubble. The nation went into shock. As the news started trickling in, the magnitude of the disaster became clear to me, the government, the nation, and the entire world.
Initially, I had no information of what had happened in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) or Azad Kashmir. The only news I received was about the collapsed building in Islamabad. I visited the site immediately. But as soon as we started to hear reports from the mountains, I ordered the army’s chief of general staff to fly over the area to assess the scale of the disaster.
The collapse of Margalla Towers made me realize how ill-equipped we were to carry out rescue operations. I must acknowledge with extreme gratitude the spontaneous response of Turkey and Britain in
dispatching their well-equipped, well-trained rescue teams. Many people saved from the debris owe their lives to these valiant few and their sniffer dogs. These rescue teams also reached the NWFP and Azad Kashmir and did an equally impressive job there. We owe them a great deal of gratitude.
By about five PM the chief of general staff returned with the first group of casualties at the military hospitals in Rawalpindi. The magnitude of the calamity was now clear. I decided to visit the sites personally early the next morning, not only to assess the damage for myself but also to comfort the wounded, the homeless, and the bereaved. The army was swift to react. The few routes to the area had been closed by landslides. Army engineers were ordered to move immediately and open them up. Divisions totaling a strength of about 50,000 troops were sent from garrisons in the Punjab. The entire helicopter strength of our army and air force was mobilized for immediate relief and evacuation of casualties.
I left for the earthquake zone at nine thirty the next morning, October 9. We went to two places in the NWFP and three in Azad Kashmir. The town of Balakot in the NWFP had been completely destroyed.
at I saw was heartrending. There was not a building left standing. The entire government of the town had been obliterated. Those left alive were standing around in shock. I could hardly bear to see their glazed eyes and traumatized expressions and the hopelessness etched on their faces. I could do no more than give words of solace and comfort and convey my resolve to help them through this catastrophe. Wherever I went I saw doctors at work-some civilian, most military-tending to patients in the open or in makeshift shelters. At Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir, I was surprised and pleased to see a Turkish medical team already at work. How had they gotten there before me? Knowing Turkish, I thanked them for their selfless devotion and love for our people. At Muzaffarabad, at about one PM, I was given the good news that the army engineers had opened one of the two roads leading to the city. They must have moved at night and worked in the darkness to complete the job. The other main arteries to other cities were also opened within two days. However, access to the remote mountain valleys took weeks to restore. Those areas depended on helicopter support.
Returning to my office, I took stock of the situation and decided to launch the President’s Reconstruction Initiative (PRI). This effort involved four stages: rescue, relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation. We first set up a Federal Relief Commissioner’s Organization to man-age the rescue and relief operation. We later created an Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority to look after the third and fourth stages.
The rescue operation lasted for about a month. Pakistan was ill-equipped for it, lacking technical expertise and equipment. We shall always remain grateful for the fast response of Britain and Turkey in dispatching their rescue experts. They saved many lives.
Our main preoccupation was the relief operation, since so many mil-lions were homeless and winter was approaching. This involved three distinct elements: bringing in food and water to prevent famine; mobilizing medical assistance, including essential lifesaving medicines and field hospitals; and providing shelter for the homeless. Pakistan is not like the wealthy western nations that have vast resources and well-organized social security nets. While the government does stock a certain amount of relief stores for unforeseen calamities, a vast network of private charities must share the burden and fill the gaps. The whole nation rose as one to help, with countless citizens and innumerable volunteer organizations donating, collecting, and transporting relief goods. Hundreds of doctors-local and expatriate Pakistanis and foreigners-streamed in to help. The generosity of Pakistanis as well as our friends abroad was as impressive as the disaster was unimaginable. The NGOs, UN organizations, and indeed the entire world community opened their hearts to us. The Pakistani nation can never forget their spontaneous generosity and empathy.
The role of my government in all this was coordination. We realized that if we did not control and regulate the huge flow of relief goods to the earthquake zone and maintain our overburdened telecommunication network, the whole system would become chaotic and collapse. The army was the only institution that could do this. Accordingly, we spread the army divisions, ten brigades and approximately fifty battalions, to various locations covering the length and breadth of the affected area. These locations we called nodes. Their telephone numbers and the names of the officers in charge were publicized through the media for access by anyone who needed assistance. The army thus regulated all the incoming and outgoing traffic and directed and distributed relief supplies on a most-needed basis. The nodes also acted as telecommunication hubs. We nominated two main relief air bases to receive relief goods, developed a sorting organization at these bases, laid down six forward bases in the mountains, and created an organization centered on the army nodes to carry the goods from these bases to the affected villages by helicopter, by airdrops, by mule, and on foot. I would be remiss if I did not make special mention of the contribution of the Chinook helicopters from the United States and Britain in transporting relief goods to the disaster areas. Time is of the essence in any rescue and relief operation, and we could not have succeeded without the Chinooks.
I must also mention the contribution not only of the governments but also of the people of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. They kept us supplied with relief goods such as tents, food, and medicines. Their governments launched special campaigns for generating public donations. The people of both countries opened their hearts to us. Most touching were the schoolchildren who donated their pocket money and the many poor people who came forward with their only valuable possessions.
Perhaps one of the wisest decisions I made, a few weeks into the relief operation, was to “monetize” the area. I saw that hundreds of thousands of people had been left penniless. Patients taken to field hospitals or to far-off main hospitals had no money to return home. All the small retail businesses in the earthquake zones had collapsed. There was not even a semblance of any commercial activity-there were no sellers and no buyers. We decided to distribute cash immediately to the next of kin of the dead or missing, to the wounded, and to Al those who lost their homes. Approximately $350 million was distributed in about three months. This really did wonders. Commercial activity started up again, people commenced their own reconstruction effort, and one could see signs of economic life returning.
Cynics and pessimists predicted that tens of thousands of people would die of injuries, thousands of starvation, and thousands more of disease and in epidemics. None of this happened. They also predicted that tens of thousands would freeze to death in the merciless
Himalayan winter, which would soon be upon us. I call such people uninformed alarmists-feebleminded, feeble-hearted, and, not to put too fine a point on it, simply stupid. I knew all along that their predictions were wildly overblown.
Reconstruction is a more complex, long-term activity. We examined how it had been done around the world, particularly after the recent tsunami in south Asia and Hurricane Katrina in the United States. About 400,000 houses, schools, hospitals, and government structures needed to be built. For the houses, we thought it would be unwise and impractical to impose a solution from above. We therefore decided to follow an owner-driven strategy based on a fixed cash compensation for each house destroyed, together with a design for making new houses earthquake-resistant. For schools and hospitals we followed a need-based strategy whereby we worked out the optimum health and educational requirements of the area in the form of primary, middle, and high schools, colleges, and various categories of dispensaries and hospitals. As to the government infrastructure in Muzaffarabad, we decided to relocate it to create space for beautification of the city.
Rehabilitation involved caring for destitute women, orphaned children, and the physically impaired. We decided to open rehabilitation centers called ashiana around Islamabad, but later to shift them forward to their own areas in the NWFP and Azad Kashmir. One worry I had was the financial and “in kind” resources that we needed over the long term, to sustain the relief effort and to undertake the reconstruction and rehabilitation program. We launched a survey to evaluate the total damage in conjunction with the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, UN organizations, and the government of Pakistan. We wanted everyone to agree on our needs from the start. The estimate produced was $5.2 billion: $1.6 billion for sustaining the relief operation for one year, $3.6 billion for reconstruction, and $100 million for rehabilitation. Armed with these data I decided to call a Donors’ Conference in Islamabad to generate funds internationally. I also launched the President’s Relief Fund. It made me proud to see the huge international response at the Donors’ Conference. Seventy-six countries were represented, and in all they pledged $6.4 billion-$1.2 billion more than we had targeted-some in grants, some in soft loans. The entire Pakistani nation and I personally are grateful to the world for showing such generosity to Pakistan in its hour of need. The President’s Relief Fund also received generous donations, mainly from local and expatriate Pakistani individuals and organizations. This fund had crossed $170 million in early 2006.
The earthquake was an act of God that caused tremendous pain and loss. Yet, the recovery effort-public and private, domestic and international, spontaneous and organized-is its own act of God, or perhaps thousands of His acts. With so much assistance and goodwill, the area and its people will recover, and we will all remain grateful.