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Disaster provides lessons as relief workers prepare for winter

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A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT

A woman boils tea at a "tent city" outside Balakot, Pakistan.
Nov. 30, 2005

By Paul Jeffrey* 

MANSEHRA, Pakistan (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 location.

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 CWS.

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A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT

Church World Service/ACT supports this "tent city" outside Balakot, Pakistan.
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.

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

Throughout Pakistan, 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 said.

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 villages.

“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.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT

A woman watches as her brother digs into the ruins of her home in Balakot, searching for the bodies of her children following the quake.
“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 asked.       

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 north.

“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 response.

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.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey/ACT

A woman carries water in a bucket at a "tent city" outside Balakot.
“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.”

That generates 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 citizens.”

Solidarity, Azariah 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

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