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PAKISTAN: Quake Survivors Await Relief

Beena Sarwar

KARACHI, Oct 29 2008 (IPS) - Poor infrastructure and communications are making it difficult for rescue and relief teams to reach scattered hamlets in the mountainous plateau area affected by the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Pakistan’s Balochistan province at dawn on Wednesday.

Relief efforts were repulsed by a second temblor, estimated at 6.2 on the Richter scale that struck the area barely 12 hours later at about 5 pm, followed by at least four significant aftershocks.

Lt. Gen. (retd) Farooq Ahmed Khan, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said that the situation had been brought under control when the second earthquake struck.

“We had managed to find most of the bodies and provide relief to most of the survivors, including hospitalisation and first aid and tents and blankets. But because of the darkness as night fell soon after the second earthquake, it is hard to say what the situation is at this point,” he said in a late-night television show, talking to Kamran Khan of Geo TV.

At least 200 people are believed to be dead so far, a number expected to rise as many remain trapped under collapsed houses in scattered hamlets. The survivors have mostly taken refuge in the fruit orchards, braving the bitter cold of the mountain region, close to the Afghanistan border.

The army has provided six C-130 airplanes to convey relief materials including tents, blankets, food and drinking water to the affected areas, and put two army field hospitals on standby, said the NDMA chair.

The worst-hit area is the idyllic hill resort of Ziarat near the earthquake’s epicentre, some 70 km north-east of the provincial capital of Quetta. Ziarat is accessible by a single road that has been damaged by the earthquake, but the over a half dozen villages around Ziarat town are more difficult to reach.

Most of the houses in the area are reported to have collapsed, the main cause of death say reporters who reached Ziarat town. They also say there is an urgent need of tents, blankets, food items and drinking water.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province in terms of area, but is sparsely populated and poor in terms of development and social indicators. Although rich in natural mineral resources, and natural gas, most of the ten million or so inhabitants – a fraction of the country’s estimated 160 million – of this rugged, water-scarce plateau region are tribal, nomadic herders or fruit farmers.

Situated on a known fault-line, the province is no stranger to such destruction. The devastation caused by the 1935 earthquake is part of legend now, when some 35,000 people were killed in Quetta, wiping out half the city’s population.

However, successive governments have done little to take precautionary measures or enforce safety regulations that would reduce earthquake casualties in the country.

British colonial rulers, recognising the area’s proneness to quakes, introduced the Building Code Act of 1935, notes M. Ejaz Khan, a veteran reporter based in Quetta. The Act included the stipulation that no buildings in the earthquake-prone area would be higher than a single-storey.

“But many buildings in Quetta are four-storeys high,” Khan told IPS over the phone. “In Ziarat, there are mostly mud houses, but several government residences go up to two or three-storeys high.”

The international community has stepped forward with expressions of condolence and offers of aid, including Britain, China, India and the European Union. Germany has already committed 315,000 US dollars as well as tents, blankets and other essentials.

Officials said essential items included earthmovers for digging mass graves and shelter and blankets capable to protect the survivors from freezing temperatures as winter sets in.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari has announced Rs 300,000 (around 3,600 dollars) as compensation for each casualty and Rs 100,000 (1,200 dollars) for each injured survivor.

However, many families affected by the devastating earthquake in Kashmir in the north-west almost three years ago are yet to receive the compensation promised then. Over 80,000 people were killed then, with about as many injured and maimed.

“Some claimants gave up and made the tough decision to migrate to other areas, while others took loans for reconstruction. Yet others, generally the poorest, unable to pursue any of these options, continue to live in tents or other makeshift arrangements,” according to ‘Three Years On, The Realities of People’s Lives’, a report released by the Omar Asghar Khan Foundation on Oct. 8, the third anniversary of the 2005 earthquake.

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