In Pakistan, no lessons learnt from earthquake | Opinion | DW | 28.10.2015
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In Pakistan, no lessons learnt from earthquake

Whether the death toll from the recent earthquake runs into the thousands or is limited to the hundreds, the ugly truth is that no lessons have been learnt, says's Atika Rehman.

It was utter pandemonium. The earth shook for one full minute last Thursday and jolted remote parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, leaving nearly 300 dead and thousands injured.

People ran for their lives, stumbling down steps and hurling themselves out of homes and buildings. Eyewitnesses describe a doomsday scenario, where buildings shook like pendulums and people made a wild dash for narrow exits. As the horrific realization of what had happened slowly registered, many fell to the ground in supplication, their lips quivering with prayers of thankfulness for their survival.

The panic was not misplaced. The scene was reminiscent of the horror that hit a decade earlier, when a violent earthquake devastated large swaths of northern Pakistan on an October morning. At an astounding 75,000, the death toll was catastrophic.

In comparison to the enormous human tragedy of 2005, this week's earthquake was a lucky escape. Had the earthquake been less deep or the epicenter closer to urban areas, the loss of life could have been exponentially higher.

No lessons learnt

But whether the death toll runs into the thousands or is limited to the hundreds, the event raises questions about Pakistan's approach towards natural disasters. And the ugly truth is that no lessons have been learnt.

A senior doctor from the Pakistan Medical Association recently wrote about the shock he felt when he returned this year to Muzaffarabad, a Pakistani city flattened by the 2005 quake. "I was shocked to see that in every city and town, there were new multi-storied buildings constructed in violation of laws without any consideration for public safety," Shershah Syed writes.


Atika Rehman

He says he saw a newly made seven-storey building that could not withstand even a medium-sized earthquake, a clear indication of the government's indifference.

Even in the capital city of Islamabad which saw the deaths of over 70 that fateful day when a 10-storey building crumbled, building rules have not been enforced. Contractors and building companies continue to use inadequate material during construction, and despite the high risk, the government is taking no measures to prevent this wrongdoing.

The state's casual attitude towards natural disasters and climate change issues is appalling; the single earthquake of 2005 wiped out more people in one jolt than Pakistan has lost in nearly a decade of terror attacks. Why then, is an explosive issue like environmental disasters so low on the country's list of priorities?

One excuse is that the state has its hands full when it comes to "emergencies." From issues such as polio and education to national security, Pakistan has an exhaustive list of problems - all of which need urgent attention.

But while the state has swung into action to battle terrorism by going beyond rhetoric and taking substantial steps in the shape of raids and operations, the fight for other issues is limited to platitudes.

Not political enough

Senior Pakistani journalist Khurram Hussain explains the reasons behind this. "One, it's not political so gets ignored. Two, there's an attitude that these are acts of God so nothing can be done to prepare or safeguard the population. Three, there is no scientific community in the country which would otherwise serve as the main voice raising the alarm," he says.

"Public discourse is dominated by television, and natural disasters only make for good TV after they have happened, not before."

Veteran environmental journalist Rina Saeed explains the media's neglect when she writes: "Journalists in Pakistan are largely unaware of the science behind climate change, future projections by scientists and what is happening at the global level - there was only one reporter from Pakistan covering the Copenhagen Summit.”

“Most have no clue about the importance of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference 2015 or COP21 in Paris."

It is an inexorable vicious cycle. There are floods, earthquakes and heat waves. People are dying silently. But the tragedies continue to be met with indifference. The state has failed to address climate change or even create awareness through television and radio broadcasts.

The media continues to ignore the state's criminal lack of interest. Citizens are so clueless, they have no idea how a building should be evacuated in the event of an earthquake. Does one run towards an exit? Or hide under a stairwell? Should you jump off a roof when it strikes? The answers are a discomforting chorus of 'yes' and 'no.'

Atika Rehman is news editor at, the digital edition of Pakistan's largest English-language newspaper. She writes on security and government and tweets @atikarehman