Why Did Earthquake Relief Fail?
Delayed rescue attempts after the massive earthquake that struck Pakistan October 8 led to countless deaths -- and highlighted the human cost of militarism and imperialist power plays in Central and South Asia.
The estimated death toll is as high as 38,000. Suffering was intensified by the failure of the military-led relief effort in Pakistan to provide food and shelter to survivors.
“We are not mourning our dead today, we are mourning our ties with the government,” said magistrate Raja Mohammad Irshad of the city of Bagh, which is in the Pakistani-controlled section of the disputed province of Kashmir. “We are asking whether they think we are human beings, or animals, or non-living things,” he said.
Many survivors were angry because President Pervez Musharraf -- who took power in a 1999 military coup -- posed for a photo op at a collapsed building in the capital of Islamabad, while cities in the affected area and scores of towns of villages went without help.
The earthquake -- the worst in the region in a century -- would have had a catastrophic impact in any case. But its effect was greatly magnified by the area’s poverty -- a legacy of British colonialism, as well as the current U.S. effort to use Pakistan as a cornerstone in the “war on terror.”
The priorities of militarization -- and protecting the interests of the country’s tiny wealthy elite -- meant that Pakistan hasn’t taken precautions against a predicted earthquake.
A blunt warning had come earlier this year. Following the tsunami disaster last December in countries that ring the Indian Ocean, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn noted that “an official of the Geological Research Center in [the Pakistani city of] Quetta told a program on a private television channel...that the government is totally unprepared for the eventuality of an earthquake like the one that hit [the province of] Baluchistan in 1935.”
The result was to multiply the numbers killed in the earthquake -- and the misery of survivors. “We survived the earthquake,” Mohammad Zaheer told a journalist in the northwestern town of Balakot. “But now we realize we will die of hunger and cold.”
Pakistan, which has fought three wars with India since the countries became independent from Britain in 1947, has devoted its resources to developing nuclear weapons in a country where about half of adults are illiterate and one-third are officially considered poor. And these figures understate the real social crisis. According to the Pakistan Planning Commission Working Group on Poverty Alleviation, more than 29 million people -- or 22.3 percent of the population -- don’t eat enough to meet basic daily nutritional standards.
The U.S. promised aid to earthquake survivors. But the eight helicopters initially offered by George W. Bush are pathetic in view of the resources available in U.S.-occupied Afghanistan just across the border from Pakistan -- or the billions given to support Musharraf and his military.
Bush offered Musharraf $3 billion in aid in 2003 to support the “war on terror” following the September 11 attacks. According to the Asia Times Web site, about $692 million have been allocated to Pakistan for fiscal year 2005, and the U.S.-dominated “coalition aid” totals $1.3 billion, equal to about a third of Pakistan’s total defense spending.
The U.S. has been leaning on Pakistan to collaborate in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, who is said to be operating in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, from which Pakistani troops have traditionally been prohibited. Since much of the province is devastated, the U.S. will likely pressure Pakistan to move its military deeper into the area -- under the guise of providing relief.
Meanwhile, though tensions between India and Pakistan have eased since 2002--when 1 million troops faced off in the dispute over Kashmir--Pakistan waited for a crucial 48 hours after the earthquake before agreeing to accept aid from India.
India, for its part, will use the crisis to consolidate its brutal occupation of Kashmir on its side of the so-called Line of Control -- where more than 900 people were reported to have died in the earthquake. Even Israel is getting into the act, offering aid and rescue teams to Pakistan as a way to legitimize its dealings with Muslim countries.
Just as Iraq war spending hamstrung the federal government’s response following Hurricane Katrina in this country, great-power maneuvers and militarism will impede humanitarian relief efforts in Pakistan, and on both sides of the Line of Control in Kashmir.
“General Musharraf is making fools of us,” a government official in the town of Bagh told reporters. “There is no relief, no rescue teams, nothing.”
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