By Dr. Nayyer Ali

The Earthquake

October 21 , 2005

Pakistan suffered the worst natural disaster in its history on October 8 as a major earthquake rocked Kashmir and killed tens of thousands. Up till now exact information on the death toll has been difficult to get, but could be well over 40,000. Several hundred thousand, perhaps two million, are without adequate shelter. Supplies of food, medicine, blankets, tents, and other essentials are trickling in, but the difficult terrain has hampered relief.
In the wake of this disaster, it is gratifying to see Pakistanis in Pakistan and abroad pull together to ease the human suffering. Fundraising has been brisk, and millions of dollars in aid are in motion. In the US, Pakistani and Muslim groups have mobilized, as have some Indian organizations, although Indian-held Kashmir was spared the widespread damage that took place in Pakistan.
Although most of the casualties were in Kashmir, and mostly in villages, a couple of apartment buildings collapsed in Islamabad. A lucky few were rescued from the rubble, but most died either instantly or from the effects of hours and days of having remained trapped in the fallen structures.
Compared to Hurricane Katrina, this was a huge blow that far outpaced New Orelans. Perhaps a thousand people died in Katrina, while 40,000 may have died in a few minutes in the earthquake. It actually is not accurate to say that this was the worst disaster in Pakistan’s history. The worst was in fact a hurricane, or what is called in the Indian Ocean a cyclone. On November 12, 1970, a tidal wave thirty feet high whipped up by a cyclone struck East Pakistan and washed out to sea an estimated 1 million people. The human mind cannot grasp such a calamity, with a toll that exceeds a nuclear detonation over a major city. The listless response of the Pakistani government, and the withdrawal of one of the two major Bengali political parties from the upcoming election, allowed Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League to win the 1970 vote, and set the stage for the dissolution of Pakistan.
What was once West Pakistan on the other hand is relatively tranquil from a natural disaster standpoint. The land is not usually the victim of major disasters other than river floods, and so this earthquake struck an unprepared population. The geology of South Asia is dominated by the ongoing collision of the Indian subcontinent with the Tibetan edge of Asia, a collision that began tens of millions of years ago. This impact has pushed up the land from being a shoreline and transformed it into the peaks of the Himalayas. They continue to rise at about two inches per century, but this mountain-building is not usually associated with major quakes.
It is an adage in disaster relief that earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. The truth of that could be seen in the Loma Prieta quake near San Francisco in 1989, which was about the same size as the Kashmir quake. Only a few hundred people died in that quake, even though it occurred just nearby a huge population center. Modern building techniques and earthquake codes allow buildings to survive even very large quakes unscathed. The safest place to be in the next big quake in California is your own home or a large recently built skyscraper.
In Third World countries, the buildings are mostly un-reinforced masonry, which are cheap and sturdy, but collapse with even moderate shaking, crushing their inhabitants. Among the most tragic stories to come out of this disaster is that of the hundreds of schoolchildren who died together as their school buildings fell down.
So what is the long-term effect of this quake on Pakistan? For those who were killed or injured, or lost relatives or property, the quake will leave a permanent mark. But for Pakistan as a whole, it is not going to derail the economy or the society. The most ruthless calculators, investors in the stock market, actually pushed stock prices higher in the week after the quake. The value of the rupee remained stable, and when the government asked for formal Expression of Interest in the upcoming privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills, they were deluged with 17 applications, mostly from abroad.
While Pakistan as a nation can overcome this quake, for over two million people, the quake has caused tremendous hardships. Now is the time for all who care about Pakistan to generously donate what they can to ease the burden of the victims. Comments can reach me at



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