Critiques of the 2005 quake reconstruction

The devastating 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck northwestern Pakistan in October 2005 led to the establishment of a government body tasked with coordinating the emergency response, early recovery and reconstruction of homes and infrastructure in an area spanning 30,000sqkm of mountainous terrain.

The Earthquake Relief and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) has been credited with overseeing the biggest post-disaster reconstruction effort in history: Its owner-driven rural housing programme to rebuild some 435,000 homes in nine districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistan-administered Kashmir has become a benchmark. [See “Building back better” in quake zone]

However, amid the chaotic scenes that inevitably followed such a large-scale and widely scattered disaster, it took some time for ERRA to formulate and implement its policies.

“[At the beginning] there wasn’t enough information in the field. There wasn’t enough capacity in the field and people were starting to build quickly before advice,” Maggie Stephenson, technical adviser at UN HABITAT, which was involved in designing ERRA’s housing programme from the outset, told IRIN.

Stephenson praised the Pakistan government’s overall response to the disaster, particularly the army, but noted that the current ERRA model for rural housing reconstruction took years to develop and was not without mistakes.

“There was only a very simple and single housing standard at the beginning and it really had to be widened and tested. There was extremely rigorous testing from the World Bank and others. Every local [construction] technique that now seems obvious had a lot of documentation, empirical testing and so on,” Stephenson said.

“We’re conscious that we wouldn’t want people to go through some of the things we went through. We want some of the hurdles also to be documented so that we can avoid them next time,” she added.

Kamran Shariff, humanitarian affairs officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that coming from “zero capacity” ERRA had done a “pretty good job” in harmonizing all the stakeholders involved in the disaster, but he also lamented the amount of time and money needed to arrive at best practices.

Photo: ERRA
Not much progress has been made in the new Balakot city

“In rural housing they have gone through lots and lots of trial and error. The initial houses that were made were based on inputs by consultants who had no idea of local needs. So they wasted a lot of time - and I’m sure money and effort - in coming up with a design that was cost-effective and earthquake-resistant as well. And they ended up re-inventing the wheel and coming up with a design very close to the traditional house designs of that area,” Shariff told IRIN.

“So it has taken lots and lots of time - nearly half a decade - and that has caused lots of frustration.”

Too many layers of bureaucracy

Another critique of the reconstruction effort has been that there were too many layers of bureaucracy and that “parallel structures” slowed the process down.

“What people in Pakistan are doing is to get the best of ERRA’s model and trying to replicate that without the complexity associated with the bureaucratic procedures. ERRA’s approach is considered too process-oriented, too time-consuming, too much bureaucracy. That’s the biggest hurdle in replicating ERRA’s model. [But] they are not able to do it in Pakistan - Baluchistan is one example,” Shariff said, referring to the October 2008 earthquake in this province.

“I was there coordinating the humanitarian response. There they [the government] just gave them the money. No standards, nothing. You could build a house or go spend the money,” he said.

Aid workers in Islamabad told IRIN that the reasons why owner-driven reconstruction (ODR) was not replicated in the Baluchistan quake were to do with conflicts of interest between governing bodies.

ERRA’s mandate was and is specific to the nine districts affected by the 2005 quake, but too many parallel structures were set up, causing delay, say critics like Abdul Khaliq, policy officer for Action Aid in Pakistan.

Photo: ERRA
Some 10,000 prefabricated houses have been distributed to urban residents who lost their homes

The State Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (SERRA) was set up in Pakistan-administered Kashmir to work under ERRA, as was the Provincial Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency (PERRA) for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Disasters in the rest of the country are dealt with by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which was set up in 2007, and many say it does not get along well with ERRA.

“There was confusion over roles and responsibilities due to these parallel structures. And because the power and resources have been with ERRA, the line departments have not taken interest in the implementation,” said Khaliq, adding that as soon as ERRA had finished its work - around the end of 2011 - these parallel structures should have been dissolved and all assets handed over to publicly accountable line departments. “Give the power back to the local government departments.”

Less help for urban residents

In addition to some 611,000 rural homes affected by the quake, 25,000 urban housing units were affected in Muzaffarabad, Bagh, Rawalakot and Balakot districts. ERRA adopted a “modified strategy” for urban housing by paying a total of 2.92 billion Pakistani rupees (US$35 million) for the reconstruction of these homes but without the inspections and enforced compliance with building codes that occurred in rural areas. It is also distributing 10,000 prefabricated houses to urban residents to meet their medium-term needs.

“There was financial support for households but it wasn’t enough to rebuild their homes and it wasn’t good timing to rebuild,” said Stephenson. “A rural house that fell down people could start rebuilding the next day, but an urban house was probably a three-storey concrete building and the same money was not going to build it.”

She said urban residents were left in limbo. Many used the money given to them to rent other accommodation, or just to survive while living in shelters. With some 30,000 people still living in temporary places, she said estimates suggested it would take another 10 years for people to rebuild their homes as there was a “serious absence of technical support” in urban areas.

“Considering the massive sympathy the world had for Muzaffarabad, it’s a pity really that there hasn’t been enough attention on its fate. It’s been narrowed down to a few public projects,” Stephenson said, blaming poor decision-making, lack of master planning and the immobilization of funds.

Abdul Khaliq of Action Aid stressed the urgent need for work to start on master plans for city development projects. He blamed ERRA’s mismanagement and misuse of funds for the delay and said the uncertain future faced by many affected urban residents was causing much anxiety.

Photo: Ramita
Muzaffarabad lies in an area of mountains and

ERRA’s priority

Waqas Hanif, programme manager for rural housing at ERRA, said 88 percent of the housing damage in the quake zone was in rural areas, so that has been ERRA’s priority. “In the urban areas, the ball game is a little different. They have everything available on their doorstep, like building materials, building codes and the agencies to enforce them. And they have options available to them. They can relocate, rent a new house and so on. But in the rural areas, if you are homeless, you have nowhere to go.”

Balakot was the worst-hit town in the quake zone as it was effectively razed to the ground. There, ERRA has provided residents with temporary shelters until a new town will be built some 11km away. “We will give them the money and designs and ask them to construct their new homes themselves,” Hanif said.

But this plan is resented by locals, according to OCHA’s Shariff. Balakot is a historic town where trade routes and rivers converge. It is also an area of high seismic risk amid valleys and mountains, leaving few options for a suitable relocation site.

“There have been voices raised against this [relocation] from day one. The new town will in itself cause a lot of environmental damage. At the end of the day I think it would be the land mafia that would benefit,” said Shariff, who suggested that a better idea would be to rebuild in the same place with highly seismic-resistant buildings.

“So the problem is: One, finding space, and two, the willingness of the people to leave their ancestral homes and go to some new area,” he said.