The Kashmir Earthquake

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

THE NEWS from earthquake-stricken Pakistan gets steadily worse. Initially the death toll was estimated at 20,000, making the disaster 20 times more lethal than Hurricane Katrina. But yesterday an army official close to the rescue operations revised it up to between 35,000 and 40,000, with 2,000 more fatalities likely across the border in Indian-controlled Kashmir. This is nothing like the Asian tsunami, which killed an estimated 230,000; nor does it approach the scale of the Bangladeshi cyclone that killed about 140,000 in 1991. But the provincial capital of Muzaffarabad has been reduced to almost nothing. At least 2 million people are homeless, and winter is just weeks away.

The response -- or at least the announced response -- has been generous and fast. The United Nations issued an appeal for $272 million yesterday, but its call appeared almost redundant: Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have each promised $100 million worth of assistance; the Bush administration, which was slow off the mark after the tsunami as well as after Hurricane Katrina, has already pledged an initial $50 million. Aid missions of various kinds have reportedly arrived from Britain, China, South Korea, Turkey, Spain, Iran, Russia, the Netherlands, Japan and Germany. The first U.S. transport plane loaded with blankets and other relief supplies landed in the afflicted region on Monday. Yesterday U.S. helicopters arrived from neighboring Afghanistan to ferry in relief supplies and take the injured to hospitals.

Just as with Katrina, managing and coordinating a vast relief effort is no easy matter. Pakistan's military-dominated government may be suited to delivering a quick initial rescue effort, but the lesson of past earthquakes is that top-down responses aren't enough. Pretty soon, the relief operation has to make a transition: The victims can't be treated as passive recipients but must be helped to help themselves. In rural areas, villages can be rebuilt by their inhabitants if local leaders are given the cash to procure construction materials. In towns, cash assistance to families has been shown in past disasters to work better than handouts of food and blankets after the initial emergency has passed.

At the same time, Pakistan's government needs to focus immediately on the decisions that only the public sector has the authority to make. Before urban rebuilding starts, geologists need to determine where reconstruction can most safely be located. Once that decision is made, the government must arrange to buy the chosen land or set the rules by which private citizens can do so. It must establish procurement procedures for the reconstruction of public infrastructure that balance haste and sound financial management, and it must establish building codes. The lesson of past disasters is that this sort of planning has to happen fast, before dozens of aid agencies cut separate deals with different government departments to rebuild this or that in an uncoordinated manner.

If there is any silver lining to this tragedy, it's that it may shock people into fresh thinking. This can lead to innovations, such as insurance schemes that create incentives to build in safer places, or it can lead to geopolitical progress. Greece offered help after Turkey's 1999 earthquake, beginning the diplomatic thaw between these traditional enemies. After the Kashmir earthquake, India offered aid that Pakistan accepted. Perhaps this gesture may accelerate the reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

No matter what progress may come, the earthquake certainly was too high a price to pay. "For the first two days we have been either digging ground to recover bodies or digging to bury them," Sikander Hayat Khan, the highest-ranking elected official in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, told Reuters. "Kashmir has turned into a graveyard."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company