Ten years after the Pakistan earthquake, a small town muddles through

The scene in Balakot, 2005. Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

Anybody who was in northern Pakistan on October 8 2005 will never forget where they were and what they were doing the moment the world started to shake.

I was standing in my garden in Islamabad, as the ground seemed to sway one way and the house lurched the other. Instantly we knew that this was a massive earthquake – but just how massive only became clear once news started to trickle in from remote areas.

The earthquake flattened Balakot, a town that was home to 30,000 people, about 160km north of Islamabad. The eventual death toll from the districts around the town was put at 73,000.

This summer, I returned to Balakot and the earthquake-affected area with a Pakistani survey team to see how the people there have rebuilt their lives in the ten years since the catastrophe.

Judging by the stories I heard from survivors, they found being in the epicentre of a massive internationally funded aid effort utterly bewildering. And if the people in the earthquake-affected districts are back on their feet, it is not because of a grand plan but because they muddled through – and today’s Balakot offers a stark visual display of what “muddling through” really means.

Back in business

My first impression of Balakot 2015 was of a busy, thriving commercial centre, straddling one of the main highways to Pakistan’s north. Crowds throng the hundreds of roadside shops. Balakot is back in business – but its people still have much to tell about the experience of picking up their lives again.

Not all of this is the work of the aid effort. Some of the grandest assistance schemes produced the most meagre results. Everywhere you look are prefabricated huts left over from the aid effort. They have turned the town and the valley blue, an unfamiliar colour in an area where people normally build in stone and wood. A decade after the distribution of temporary shelters, these glorified tin trunks still serve as residences, restaurants and schools.

Many of the residents I spoke to in Balakot started by explaining that they should not really be living there in the first place. In the months after the disaster, the Provincial Earthquake Reconstruction Authority declared Balakot a “red zone”, reporting that international seismologists had found multiple fault lines passing under the town. The graphic way survivors described it made it sound as if the whole valley was expected to disappear into a giant sink hole.

The “red zone” status meant that the government banned the building of permanent structures within a 5km radius. The reconstruction authority also announced that survivors would be shifted to “New Balakot City”, to be established on a green field site half way to district centre of Mansehra.

Picking up the pieces in 2005. Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

Ten years later, New Balakot City is a classic white elephant. Contractors have laid out beautiful asphalt roads and footpaths, but not a single residential plot has been allocated; the only people who go there are goatherds. Meanwhile, in the original Balakot, government departments have to obey the rules, and so they all work in temporary accommodation.

But eventually civilians just started to ignore the ban and rebuild their houses, many of them now with a prefab incorporated into the structure. The red zone declaration has not in itself made anyone homeless, but people conclude that the authorities tell you to do something while actually expecting you to do the opposite.

Building back better

Aid and self-help were equally crucial. People talked gratefully about the assistance that they had received – food, temporary shelter, some cash assistance. The families of the dead and injured were compensated, and grants given for house reconstruction outside the red zone.

But far fewer people told us they’d received help to rebuild their livelihoods. Although commercial activity started again days after the devastation, local entrepreneurs described to us how they had initially struggled to recapitalise their businesses. In the severely affected areas, people’s losses were far greater than the total of aid they received, and they had to make up the difference themselves.

Tidying up: a barber at work. Reuters/Stefano Rellandini

Meanwhile, efforts to promote earthquake-resistant construction techniques produced only modest results. Survivors prefer to build back bigger, but not necessarily better.

I met an old man who was building his house on a hillside. He had hired a mason, one of thousands who’d been trained in improved techniques. The old man showed off how they were fabricating a frame of reinforced concrete for the house, and how they had created a cavity between the house’s back wall and the hill that they had cut into.

This seemed encouraging, as the authorities had invested massive efforts in persuading people to “build back better”, so that survivors would be better placed to get through future earthquakes.

But our survey found that a majority of people said they had not complied with the recommendations to increase use of concrete and reinforcing rods. Almost everyone had rebuilt their house since the earthquake, but less than half had tried to make the house earthquake resistant. And when we asked people if they felt ready to withstand another earthquake, they overwhelmingly answered no.

The best and the worst

The disaster brought out the best and the worst in people. We heard how coping with the earthquake had undermined community solidarity; people had to lie, bribe and compete with their neighbours to get hold of scarce aid resources. Their dealings with outsiders, such as NGO surveyors who might be planning a distribution, also obliged people to become more manipulative.

In contrast, everyone had stories of groups binding together and of voluntary assistance rendered; I saw this myself in Islamabad, as citizens mobilised to collect relief goods and care for the injured in hospital. Nonetheless, the survivors I met in Balakot regret that the experience of prolonged exposure to the aid machinery had left their communities culturally diminished.

They have little faith in their civil administration or elected representatives. While some individual officials were singled out for praise, survivors said they saw no spirit of public service among the government departments or local elected representatives. They had more praise for the army, which played a high-profile role in the initial disaster response.

Making do. Reuters/Thierry Roge

Their cynicism about local officials is hardly surprising. The pressure of political patronage diverted aid away from the most needy, despite both acute need in the most affected areas and a massive, generous international operation to meet that need. Local politicians and officials grasped opportunities to cash in on the thousands of projects and distributions to favour their select constituencies.

The upshot was that the local political dynasty flourished. Sardar Yusuf had become the indirectly elected district nazim for Mansehra, the administrative district to which Balakot belongs, days before the earthquake. This left him in charge of local government in the main area benefiting from relief assistance. He went on to become a ruling party member of parliament and is now a minister, while his son sits in the provincial assembly.

On the way

A decade on, the earthquake survivors were both troubled and hopeful. They feel economically worse off, are frustrated with an administration that cannot deliver on promises, and worry they’re even more vulnerable to future disasters. They have learned all too well that the behaviour of governments and communities can subvert the most sophisticated recovery plan.

That said, these communities are far more globally and nationally connected that ten years ago. The old man who eventually rebuilt according to the earthquake safety specifications was able to do so because he has two sons working in the Gulf.

One poignant moment encapsulated both the tragedy and the self-reliance I encountered in Balakot. A couple of villagers on the edge of the red zone showed me a house which had been completely crushed by a giant boulder and the dozen neatly arranged graves for extended family members killed on that day. As well as their name, each grave was marked with their relationship to those who had buried them – brother, mother, daughter.

But as they showed me around, my hosts described their work in trucking and local minerals development, even pointing to a quarry visible on the mountain opposite. Their village was still not fully rebuilt, but it was on its way. And for all the help the region has received, they were mainly depending on their own efforts to get the job done.

Ten years is not really enough to recover fully from an earthquake – and muddling through is sometimes the only way.

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