21 , 2005
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
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 Nali@socal.rr.com.