Nepali Times
Lessons of Kashmir for Kathmandu


When I heard of the 8 October earthquake I went to my hometown of Muzaffarabad in Azad Kashmir to see and evacuate my family. I also wanted to assess the loss to Muzaffarabad, its people and infrastructure. I reached the town on foot a few days after the disaster only to find a place where only the ghosts roamed. Most of the streets were filled with debris with the dead underneath. All government buildings, except the Secretariat, the Legislative Assembly, the Supreme Court and the High Court buildings,were in ruins.

Schools, the university and all the colleges were heaps of rubble. Most people working in these institutions had been killed by the collapse of buildings. I had a camera but did not have the heart to take a single picture nor to stay longer as is expected in our culture.

Viewing television footage of the tragedy doesn't even begin to give the true scale of the catastrophe and the loss of human lives, property, the bereavement and the shock of those who miraculously survived.

I lost 23 relatives from our extended family. Friends, teachers, doctors, neighbours and entire communities were destroyed. It was amazing to see that the house which I had built in 1986 was still standing and that was why my elderly father, my brother and his family all survived. This might be a miracle but I see it from another perspective: the quality of structure, design and materials used. Here is a message for all mountain people: rethink and reinvent the designs of your homes, roads, bridges and all infrastructure.

I request everyone to disseminate this message throughout the region. Mountain areas are naturally prone to disasters and we must be especially mindful of the design of school buildings. Most of the schools in the earthquake area have been destroyed and mortality among children was highest as they were trapped in collapsing classrooms.

he lack of open spaces contributed to the high death toll and large numbers died from being hit by falling debris. The victims are now questioning the technical and professional abilities of their town planners and structural engineers. They are asking their government to look into building codes and strengthen them in line with acceptable earthquake-proof guidelines. They are also questioning why most of the government buildings fell, killing and injuring their occupants.

For us mountain people it is time to learn a lesson from Kashmir's tragedy. Let's work together and insist on framing and implementing a code of conduct sensitive to disasters for local, provincial and national building authorities so that future generations will not be killed by their own houses.

I am thankful to the sympathy and financial aid shown by the Nepali people and His Majesty's Government. I thank the staff at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu for their support.

These gestures of solidarity lighten my burden at a time when I mourn the deaths of many friends, relatives, laboratory staff and other colleagues. They provide me personal inspiration to restart the difficult task of helping rebuild my town and my neighbourhood, to leave behind the misery I witnessed and to begin moving forward into the future.

Farooq Ahmad, PhD, is a sustainable agriculture expert at ICIMOD in Kathmandu.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)