|Disaster provides lessons as relief workers prepare for winter
Nov. 30, 2005
A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT
A woman boils tea at a "tent city" outside Balakot, Pakistan.
By Paul Jeffrey*
(UMNS) — Sher Shaider’s 6-year-old son was feeling sick the morning of
Oct. 8, so the school teacher decided to take him to a clinic rather
than go to work.
It saved Shaider’s life and gave him a chance to work saving other lives in his village of Thakot.
Shaider is one of more
than 1,500 school teachers in northern Pakistan who have been trained in
disaster preparedness and mitigation during the last two years. The
training was sponsored by Church World Service, a member of Action by
Churches Together, the international alliance of churches and
church-based agencies responding to emergencies. The work of CWS is
supported by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which is also a
member of ACT.
The most recent
training took place Oct. 2 in Balakot, where some 100 teachers — meeting
in separate sessions for women and men — were coached in preparedness
for emergencies, including training their students to crouch beside
their desks, how to evacuate the building to a safe location, and how to
treat the wounded. CWS provided first-aid kits and stretchers for each
And then, less than one week later, the big one struck.
In most places the
preparation had little impact, as the brisk shaking of the ground
quickly knocked everyone to the floor, and concrete roofs collapsed onto
classroom after classroom full of children. Some estimates claim as
many as 10,000 classrooms collapsed in northern Pakistan. Most of the
teachers that CWS had trained in disaster preparedness were killed,
along with thousands of their students.
“There was no way out
for them. No training could have helped them cope with this kind of
disaster,” said Dennis Joseph, the associate director of operations for
According to Saima Abbasi, a CWS field officer in the relief effort and
one of the trainers at the Oct. 2 session, a few teachers did survive,
with some reportedly hospitalized in nearby Abbottabad, but she’s been
so busy helping homeless families prepare for the looming winter that
she hasn’t had time to visit them.
A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT
Church World Service/ACT supports this "tent city" outside Balakot, Pakistan.
She wants to hear how
their training might have made a difference, but she admits that in most
cases, it probably did not. “They had no time to respond,” she said.
“And now they’re dead, many still buried under the rubble.”
Although he wasn’t in
his classroom, Shaider said he put his training to work by helping
provide first aid to several families, evacuating damaged structures and
organizing a team to save farm animals trapped in a collapsed shed.
Now he has taken a
leading role in organizing survivors to prepare for the harsh winter
ahead. “We’ve been devastated by the earthquake, but there is still a
lot we can do to survive and begin to rebuild,” he said.
Preparedness is crucial
people face the challenges of a variety of recurrent disasters, but the
country’s mountainous north, according to CWS Director Marvin Parvez, is
Pakistan’s only multi-hazard area, subject to mudslides, flash floods,
earthquakes, and more. “You name it, you get it in the north,” Parvez
That’s why the disaster
preparedness and mitigation program of CWS, launched in 2002, had
focused much of its attention on the north. Since 1981, CWS had a health
program operating among Afghan refugees in the area, so it already had
staff on the ground and good relationships with local leaders.
It was a natural place
to crank up the disaster preparedness program, using teachers as a port
of entry into remote communities that are often reluctant to trust
outsiders. The program also sought to improve the capacity of local
nongovernmental organizations whose close relationships with village
members put them in a position to strengthen the resilience of local
communities by fostering a culture of preparedness.
It was slow work. The
earthquake cut it short. Yet CWS officials maintain they’re on the right
track. “We firmly believe that response is not the solution,” said
Mansoor Raza, the coordinator of the CWS disaster program. “The solution
to emergencies lies in preparedness.”
Even though 17 of its
staff lost family members to the quake, CWS moved fast in the wake of
the tragedy. It was the first organization to get tents into Batagram,
quickly moving 600 shelter kits it had pre-positioned in a Karachi
warehouse. Many were airdropped by Pakistan Army helicopters into remote
“At the hour of our
greatest need, it was CWS that came to the rescue of our people,” said
Brigadier General Khalid Mehmood Ahmed, the coordinator of the army’s
relief efforts in Batagram.
Yet Parvez claims CWS’
initial response could have been even better given the severity of the
emergency. He wants CWS to position 5,000 tents around the country in
preparation for future disasters. “Each tent saves many lives,” he said.
Parvez said the quake showed several areas where CWS and the government need to improve their preparation.
“The first search and rescue team to reach the earthquake area came all
the way from Great Britain, and it took 22 hours for them to reach here.
That’s great, and we appreciate their sacrifice and help. But why don’t
we have our own rescue teams trained and ready to go here, teams that
could reach affected areas faster and thus save even more lives?” Parvez
A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT
woman watches as her brother digs into the ruins of her home in
Balakot, searching for the bodies of her children following the quake.
CWS is also ensuring
that its current disaster response doesn’t contribute to future crises.
That means doing things differently than in the past.
The agency is working
with Arif Hasan, a renowned Pakistani architect and urban planner, to
develop a manual for village-level masons. As CWS helps villagers
rebuild their homes and schools, Raza said the manual will help in the
creation of “seismic-sensitive” structures that can withstand the
frequent tremors that continue to shake the steep valleys in Pakistan’s
“We’re also going to
help the survivors salvage what they can from the rubble, so as not to
put more pressure on the environment,” Raza said. “Abuse of the
environment contributed to the landslides that the earthquake provoked.”
Linking its disaster response to underlying issues of vulnerability is a
key component of CWS’ emergency response.
Don’t blame nature
CWS, which established a
presence here in 1954, has taken a leading role among nongovernmental
organizations responding to the quake. It coordinates the Pakistan
Humanitarian Forum, which meets regularly to share information and
coordinate response among 40 private groups involved in the disaster
The quake also
underscores the importance of CWS’ Emergency Response Center, which the
organization set up to examine the four elements that Raza claims are
central to preparedness: environmental issues, governance, demographics
and emergency response.
“The center is a space where all the stakeholders can come together and
dialogue about these issues,” he said. “We collect information about the
four variables and disseminate it to all the relevant actors, including
NGOs, civil society groups, the media and government officials.”
A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT
A woman carries water in a bucket at a "tent city" outside Balakot.
discussion, CWS officials hope, about the structural problems that
translate into vulnerability at the local level.
According to Bishop
Samuel Azariah of the Raiwind Diocese of the Church of Pakistan, the
hundreds of school buildings that collapsed during the quake, entombing
thousands of children, are a dramatic indicator of how nature can’t take
all the blame for the suffering.
“The quake reveals
problems of bad management. Many of the schools that collapsed were
built with World Bank money, and there was bad management, lack of
foresight and probably corruption in the construction of these schools,”
he said. “They often weren’t constructed with the best materials
available. It’s a nightmare that will take us many years to get over.”
“The contractors who
built the schools wanted to make as much money as they could,” Joseph
said, “and they didn’t always use the right materials. And most of them
aren’t engineers, they’re just a guy with a pickup truck who knows how
to pile up bricks until they make a house or a school.
“As we reconstruct, we
need to rethink the style of buildings we build, and start making them
earthquake resistant,” he explained.
Raza, who directs the
Emergency Response Center, suggested the quake’s destruction highlights
the hard structural questions that need to be asked by NGOs, civil
society groups, and other stakeholders in the emergency response.
“After 57 years of
independence from Britain, why does a man in the center of the
North-West Frontier Province not have even a road into his village? If
there’s a health unit there, why is there no doctor? These kinds of
shocks are expected in this region, but why did planners seem unaware of
this? Why weren’t there plans on how to deal with this crisis?
“The biggest lesson
learned in this earthquake is that we have to put pressure on the right
circles to spend rightly on the right people,” he said.
One of the most
important tasks for private relief groups is to realize the limits of
what they can do, he added. “In a disaster, NGOs can only fill the gap.
It’s the responsibility of the government, not the NGOs, to protect its
noted, is needed for the long haul. “The work of rehabilitation and
resettling people will be the most tedious, difficult, and costly part
of responding to the earthquake,” he said. Money and professional help
will be needed long after the quake ceases to be news.
“We’re preparing to do what we can,” he said, “but we’re also going to need our sisters and brothers to help us.”
*Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for Response Magazine.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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