Our gut says we must act fast, faster than COVID-19, in the hope that we can outstrip it. As someone said to me recently, “In a pandemic, acting before doing your research, is one thing. Next time, sure, do your research, plan, organise. But right now, just help those who need it.” In response, I feel like quoting Penelope Lively: People are always meaning well. That’s often the trouble.
I’ve seen this kind of thinking before: in 2005. When a 7.6 earthquake hit Northern Pakistan that year, it devastated entire communities in the North-West Frontier Province as it was called back then, and Azad Kashmir. An estimated 400,000 families suffered when 80,000 people were killed. And 90% of the affected population lived in the rural areas, in a difficult-to-access mountainous environment.
Pakistan had never seen that kind of extensive devastation in recent history and was hardly prepared to handle such a natural disaster. It was encouraging, however, to see an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy for the communities. People from all over the country, and indeed across the world, rushed to provide sustenance and assistance.
How did some of these relief efforts unfold in 2005 when people decided to act with the motivation to help people in need? Allow me to offer up some observations on one type of relief work: architectural rehabilitation. In a bid to help rebuild the quake-hit northern areas, we provided and introduced tin roofs and concrete beams—without undertaking studies on the ground into regional structural design preferences. The problem was that these tin roofs and concrete beams are not suitable for that geography and climate.
Construction material packages were prepared for single-storey or large occupancy, depending on the number of family household members. These packages were mass distributed. People put them to use. No one thought at the time that using tin roofs and concrete beams has the effect of generating heat in that kind of housing. More tragically, two building choices disconnected the local vernacular design mechanism from the landscape and introduced urban construction materials.
Technically, we should have had already developed sensitive regional architectural methods and understood terraced mountainous architecture in which one roof is a floor to the neighbour above or below. Instead, in our rush to help, we ended up bringing urbanism into a rural setting. Standards emerge in international forums, but they need to be localized and regionalized and not blindly applied or replicated.
Fifteen years later, we find ourselves facing another disaster and people are rushing forward to help (which is entirely commendable, of course). As governments intensify the lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus I hear non-profits, independent guerrilla networks and civil society members are collecting and donating ration bags for daily-wage workers or families under the poverty line. We plugged into social media platforms and WhatsApp groups to organise. Each cause had a different price and structure of distribution for the packages. We could select options for package for a week, month.
But given the lessons of the 2005 earthquake, I could not help but wonder if we were inadvertently committing the same mistake by not doing our homework before applying ourselves. Surely we needed a map of action for households or a system to ensure equal and ethical distribution of ration packages? How were we deciding what neighborhoods needed the packages the most? Maybe we need to study and collect household data and map the area where there is the possibility of an overlap of outreach.
This is precisely the time when we need such platforms to work closely with the district commissioners and develop a masterplan by breaking down clusters to focus on vulnerable communities.
The Sindh government has shown a strong sense of perspective since the COVID-19 outbreak. Perhaps this is when people who wish to help, need to look for local strategic plans and grass roots level data analysis so civil society’s intervention is not just propelled by goodwill but also based on a socially equitable system.
Marvi Mazhar is an architect and heritage consultant @marvimazhar