Lessons from Pakistan’s 2005 earthquake for Nepal’s reconstruction

Published on 9 September 2015

Miguel Loureiro

Research Fellow

What can those working in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal learn from the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan? IDS Convenor, Miguel Loureiro shares his experiences, as part of a 10th Anniversary blog series.

Two months ago, Bimal Phunyal, ActionAid’s Nepal country director, came to IDS to give a talk on their work following the April earthquake in Nepal.

As he described events as they occurred in the field and outlined the issues and problems arising from the relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation efforts, I had a strong sense of déjà-vu, a feeling that I had been through the same issues, the same problems, the same frustrations.

And, to a certain extent, I had.

To be precise, I felt that a lot of what Bimal was saying mirrored what I experienced since October 2005, when a devastating earthquake hit northern Pakistan, claiming more than 75,000 lives and affecting more than 3.5 million people.

The epicentre of that earthquake was near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK), and it had affected most of northern and central PaK as well as the eastern side of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and a block of flats in Islamabad.

At the time, I was teaching at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). A number of us from LUMS – together with researchers from Harvard, Pomona, and the World Bank – created a public web portal (RISEPAK) (PDF), which acted as an earthquake relief coordination and accountability tool for collecting, collating, and displaying information about damage, access, and relief for rural citizens affected by the earthquake.

Since then I have been researching social change in PaK, directly and indirectly linked with the relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation activities of the citizens, state, and non-state agencies in this region.

Pre-existing commonalities between Pakistan administered Kashmir and Nepal

Coming back to my déjà-vu, although there tend to be common elements of what happens to any area struck by an earthquake (similar hazard and roughly similar international humanitarian intervention), there are other factors that make these two regions quite similar:

  • similar hilly and mountainous geography
  • more than 80% of their populations living in rural areas
  • a sizeable number of male migrants sending remittances home – particularly from the Gula
  • a long history of migration to the plains and beyond (including a martial one: lots of Victoria crosses around these hills)
  • both are polities that largely ignore the welfare of many of their citizens.

Taking these factors into consideration, along with what I witnessed in northern Pakistan since 2005, there are several ‘lessons’ that can benefit someone working in Nepal’s post-earthquake reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Since, there are many organisations that offer many lessons from previous earthquakes (for instance, ALNAP is a great one), here I will concentrate on only one: exclusion.

Three areas we need to be aware of regarding exclusion, disaster relief and reconstruction

1. The complexity of the interaction between disaster assistance and migration patterns (and potential for exclusion)

Migration networks are extremely important for recovery in households and families. For instance, the housing reconstruction that took place in PaK might have never happened if it had not been for their transnational links to global capitalism.

Soon after the earthquake most families got access to state-funded housing reconstruction subsidies, but as these were only to a maximum of Rs. 175,000 (and a house would cost from Rs. 400,000 to Rs. 800,000 to rebuild) families had to make up the difference by using their savings, by borrowing, or by increasing their income. This money mostly came through remittances.

Yet, not everybody has access to these, as migrant flows are dependent on political and economic channels. In fact, there is a greater chance that groups and individuals not benefiting from migration will be further excluded during post-disaster assistance.

It is important to know how the ‘bounties’ of migration (remittances, gifts, loans, and contacts) are distributed across villages, neighbourhoods, and family members (for instance, who collects remittances: the wife, brother, or father of the migrant?). This knowledge matters and those working in relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation need to be aware that post-disaster assistance flows are dependent on political and economic channels, at times the same political and economic channels of which migration flows are dependent on.

2. Villages are not communities

Learning from previous disasters, most development agencies now agree that the concept of community is central to relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation efforts. In fact, most agencies try to use a community-based and community-driven approach for the road to recovery.

Yet, often these same agencies fail to engage with local social, political and economic institutions. As I witnessed in PaK, pressed for time as well as for results and many times with a short mandate, these agencies overlooked local geographies of power.

This failure was not only due to logistical issues, but also related to the interests and priorities of these agencies; for instance, quite a few NGOs and UN staff were there only for relief operations and left within a year. Agencies portrayed communities as static, simple, and identical, where a one-size-fits-all approach could be implemented – they simplified the field. So often they equated ‘community’ with ‘village’.

This subtle orientalist imprint of the South Asian ‘village community’, the image of an ideal-type community, geographically delineated, autonomous, and naturally self-regulating, led them to ignore the underlying power structures. Before and after the earthquake, caste, kin, and family relationships were continuously important arenas of struggle to access different forms of capital.

Agencies inadvertently contributed in maintaining or even exacerbating the exclusion and marginalisation of certain groups, by overlooking networks of patronage embedded in local social hierarchies. This was visible in both relief and reconstruction stages, where development agencies largely ignored caste and kinship networks, despite most of their work being community-based or community-driven.

3. Working through destroyed local governments is challenging, but essential in the long-term

There is an assumption that local government cannot handle being in charge of relief and reconstruction tasks because its buildings and people are themselves damaged or destroyed. But if, on the one hand, local governments have little capacity and (maybe) knowledge for relief and reconstruction, on the other hand, development agencies (be they state or non-governmental) have little knowledge of the local and are not going to live there forever.

There has been a recent call for development agencies to engage in politically smart, locally-led development, and make a bigger effort towards understanding local governance institutions. Agencies now accept the fact that local institutions need to part of all stages all the time. Still, they struggle with accepting that local government should be in charge of relief and reconstruction.

In Pakistan, during a military dictatorship, local government was excluded in relief and reconstruction plans, with most agencies, including the UN, deciding to work with the military instead of local democratic institutions. Rather than helping weak democratic institutions, they marginalised them further.

Anyone currently working in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Nepal’s rural communities needs to be aware of how easy it is to ignore the local – local governance institutions, local social hierarchies, local networks; and they should be conscious that by doing so they’re not being neutral, they’re exacerbating exclusion.