An aftershock we can prevent – Evening Herald

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Since the October 8 earthquake that killed an estimated 73000-80000 people in northern Pakistan, there have been over 2000 aftershocks.

Some have been significant. On Friday December 2, an aftershock strong enough to shake each of the few standing buildings hit Bagh city in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the part of the old princely state of Kashmir now in Pakistan. Then, just last week, a 6.7 magnitude quake in Afghanistan was felt across the entire affected region in northern Pakistan.

One of thousands of homes destroyed by the earthquake (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

There have been about 60 aftershocks between 5 and 6 on the Richter Scale. Strong enough to remind people of the first 7.6 magnitude quake, which left almost 3.5 million homeless, and anxiously wondering whether they would have enough of the right shelter to survive the winter.

An already-traumatised people receive an almost-daily reminder of the thirteen second disaster that wreaked such destruction. Fear adds to fear, and compounds the worries generated by the winter which is already here.

But at least nature can be blamed in its entirety for the destruction and massive loss of life caused by the quake.

Or can it? As Kubilay Hilyilmaz, earthquake specialist engineer with GOAL says

‘earthquakes don’t kill people, engineers do. Or more precisely, poor engineering in building design and construction’

So it was not just nature. Nurture, in the form of poorly-built schools, mosques, barracks and houses, played a significant part. The past six weeks travelling around Kashmir provide ample anecdotal evidence of this, with large, well-built brick houses remaining intact.

But Pakistan’s earthquake-prone areas are unlikely to face another severe earthquake for the next 35 to 40 years. The Meteorology Office Director says that most of the energy built up underground had been released during the October 8 earthquake and its aftershocks.

So nothing to worry about? Nature and nurture have already colluded to destroy lives and livelihoods. It cannot get any worse, surely. Well, not quite.

With over 3 million people homeless, 450,000 houses destroyed, 1 million livelihoods lost, for now at least, and a winter set to bring 4-8 feet of snow and minus double-figure temperatures to higher ground, there is plenty to worry about.

Between 350,000 and 380,000 people will remain above 5000 feet altitude during the coming winter. They need enough good food to last them throughout the winter, and enough good quality shelter to allow them last the winter.

As things are, with the UN appeal for €500 million in life-saving relief resources only 30% funded, and with around 80% of the 420,000 tents distributed not of winter standard, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the outlook is uncertain at best, beyond bleak at worst.

250,000 people are in camps, and for those only 36,000 people are in planned camps. Of the rest, the majority have insufficient water and sanitation to ensure that basic health needs will be met – the harsh Himalayan winter included.

If the shelter does not get to the people on time – and time is short – a matter of days before winter blocks off many roads and imparts its freezing depths of snow, then many will either die on the hills or stream downhill, to an uncertain fate – cholera, pneumonia, acute respiratory syndrome.

And aid agencies, international organisations and the Pakistani authorities will be hard-pushed to cope, amid an already overstretched and under-funded relief effor

Nature or nurture? Natural or man-made disaster? Whichever, the world has had ample time to react to a crisis that has been sitting in cold storage since October 8.

Now, the cold storage is becoming a frozen deathtrap. An indeterminate amount of people could be affected. It could be as little as 10,000. As little as 10,000?! How callous that sounds! It could be as much as 250,000, as some aid agencies have suggested. How outlandish that sounds!

Or it could be just the usual annual cull meted out by the harsh winter on Kashmir’s vulnerable subsistence farming communities. But hardly the usual, given that any other year people have usually had mud and brick homes to slelter them from the elements. To remind, 3.3 million people are homeless.

Either way, we don’t know. But what we do know is that no huge aftershock is needed to cause more death. In fact, given that there are not that many buildings left for people to be trapped in, another quake would hardly claim ‘that many’ lives.

Nature has played its part in the death, destruction of infrastructure and diminution of families in northern Pakistan. Nature will play its part in the coming weeks, with what to most westerners is an unimaginably harsh winter on densely-populated mountains twice and three times higher than anything in Ireland.

However, despite nature, we have had ample time, and should have provided the means, to offset what nature will now likely wreak on the people of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and North-West Frontier Province.

And now, a second disaster looms. People will say that winter will kill the vulnerable; the young, the old, the isolated, the malnourished, the neglected, the forgotten.

But that’s not strictly true. Just as it was an elision of the truth to say that the earthquake killed 80,000 people on October 8, it will be entirely self-serving of us all to suggest that winter will kill now.

No, this time we will see a man-made disaster take its toll on the population – unless money and resources are poured in and managed effectively now.

Man-made in that due to insufficient and tardy action combined with limited quality resources, so many people are left to the mercy of a merciless winter. But man-made all the same.

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