The 2005 Pakistan earthquake: learning from history

Published on 16 September 2015

Image of Miguel Loureiro

Miguel Loureiro

Research Fellow

Tomorrow is exactly ten years since an earthquake measuring 7.6 in the Richter scale struck parts of northern Pakistan and both Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PDF). Indirectly it took more than 100,000 lives and injured over 150,000 others, causing immeasurable losses in the form of lost homes, businesses, livestock and arable land.

The earthquake and post-earthquake assistance not only changed people and their lives, but also made previous changes more visible; it highlighted a continuity of change. It takes moments of acute sudden change to put slow and chronic change in sharp contrast.

The 2005 earthquake and post-earthquake assistance did this by bringing out or exacerbating older less visible changes such as the importance of migrant networks in people’s livelihoods, or the way people accessed informal social protection.

Studying the aftermath: too little, too late

The problem is that many times when we – academics, researchers, practitioners – study or work in a disaster zone, we tend to be there after the hazard strikes.

Yes, I differentiate between hazard and disaster; for more on this, check out the excellent At Risk: natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters (PDF), co-authored by my colleague (and disasters expert) Terry Cannon. In another, related work, Political Biography of an Earthquake, Edward Simpson writes we tend to study aftermaths, not disasters.

If we do not look at how life happens in a particular region before a hazard strikes, then we end up overlooking power relations; and if we are not aware that life is constantly changing, that affected populations are not static, passive victims, then we have learnt nothing from the 2005 earthquake and post-earthquake assistance.

Not only context matters, but historical context matters as much.

That is why we have to historicise disasters, to see their impact as manifestations of continuously changing social systems. Life is a continuous process, a flux as Heraclitus would have said.

Since things are constantly changing we can’t predict the future nor identify what will happen next, or when, as in the case of an earthquake. But thinking of life as flux, as a continuity of change, can helps us think of how to mitigate or reduce the probability of a disaster and can prepare us better for their aftermath during relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation stages.

By knowing, for instance, how power relations have developed in a certain region, or who has access to resources before a hazard strikes, we can improve the targeting of assistance and pre-empt increases in inequality.

Knowing the historical context is not only important when we study or work in different regions around the world, it is important even within our organisations and our field of work.

Institutional memory loss means important lessons from the past are not built into existing approaches

Many development-related organisations, be they bilateral or multilateral donors, international financial institutions (IFIs), or international non-governmental organisations suffer from institutional memory loss.

New interventions and ideas in development today are frequently mere re-inventions of older ones, often without revisiting their outcomes and missing out potential lessons learnt from these. It seems the new actors within these organisations do not know what their organisations did sixty, fifty, and forty years ago, and as such, they do not enquire what happened next.

For instance, in an example relating to existing economic situation in Europe: austerity measures that IFIs pushed throughout sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s were a failure (PDF), but this did not prevent them from pushing the same approach to southern European nations thirty years later. It is as if they learnt nothing from the past.

So on the 8th of October when we remember the ones that died and the ones that lost so much that day, as a tribute to everything that people suffer in such disasters, we need to change the way we deal with them. We need to learn from history, we need to learn from the past.