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Same-Day Analysis

Pakistan: Earthquake Devastates Northern Pakistan, Ushers in Mixed Prospects for Peace Process

Published: 10 October 2005

An earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale hit northern and north-eastern parts of Pakistan on Saturday (8 October), killing 20,000-30,000 people and injuring at least 40,000 more.

Global Insight Perspective    
Significance The earthquake, which is believed to have been the largest in the region since 1935, also affected north-western India and parts of southern Afghanistan. 
Implications In addition to the loss of life and high number of casualties, the earthquake has badly damaged the regional infrastructure, wiping out whole villages and large parts of towns. 
Outlook However, given the remoteness of the region and the fact that none of Pakistan's commercial or industrial areas have been affected, Global Insight is not making any changes to its risk ratings. 

Scale of the Disaster

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the earthquake was centred approximately 100 km north-east of the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Its epicentre was near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which has reportedly suffered extensive damage, with around 70% of its buildings destroyed. The earthquake hit at 0830 (local time), and the survey reports that there were at least 22 aftershocks in the following 24 hours, including one registering 6.2 on the Richter scale. Initial estimates put the number of dead at 20,000, although it has been argued that the actual figure could be twice this. Those neither killed nor injured in the earthquake itself now face the elements, with many having little or no shelter against the cold weather that has started to affect the region. This, coupled with the inevitable outbreaks of disease, will undoubtedly add to the death toll.

Pakistan has taken the brunt of the disaster, with the majority of the deaths occurring in the part of Kashmir that it administers. Akram Durrani, chief minister of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), has been quoted as saying that 1,800 bodies have been recovered in his province, with the final death toll expected to be around 8,000. Apart from Muzaffarabad, the only major city to have been affected is the capital Islamabad, where the attention of relief workers has been taken by the collapse of Margalla Towers, an upmarket residential complex. Apart from this, the capital appears to have escaped relatively unscathed. The number of dead in Indian-administered Kashmir is currently in the hundreds, with around 900 believed to be injured. The quake was felt in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, but failed to cause devastation or loss of life in the city. In Afghanistan, the city of Jalalabad (capital of Nangarhar province) was affected, but not on a similar scale to Pakistan. Afghanistan has so far announced the death of four of its nationals.

International Relief Effort

The international community has responded swiftly to President Pervez Musharraf's calls for aid, with the president stating that Pakistan needs 'massive cargo helicopter support', as well as basic aid supplies. This underlines the race that is under way to gain access to areas that are currently cut off following the disaster, and to find survivors as quickly as possible. Alongside this, many of those who have survived require medical attention, while others just need shelter and food. The United States has offered eight military helicopters to support the efforts of the Pakistani military, while a raft of nations, including Australia, China, Germany, Japan, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, have all sent additional help. The European Union (EU) has pledged just over US$4.3 million, while the World Bank is offering to fund the country's recovery with US$20 million. India has also offered to send relief workers and supplies, but looks to be diplomatically blocked at the moment, with Musharraf quick to thank India for its offer, but stalling any assistance by arguing that Pakistan needs to work out what is needed and whether India can offer this.

Outlook and Implications

Impact on the Economy

The scale of the disaster is set to exert strain on Pakistan's budgetary position. While reconstruction costs for social infrastructure should be offset by substantial inflows of aid from key donors and the Pakistani diaspora, the repair of key military installations in strategic areas hit by the earthquake will incur a direct budgetary impact. The government will need to balance extraordinary expenditure demands in the wake of the earthquake with the continued consolidation of its finances, which remains crucial to the long-term stabilisation of the economy.

Fiscal implications aside, the direct impact on overall growth will be limited to the local economies affected by the disaster. The key manufacturing and commercial hubs of Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad remained unaffected by the quake, ensuring comparatively minimal interruption to activity. Moreover, growth in fiscal year (FY) 2004 (ending June 2005) is estimated at 8.4% - the fastest rate in over two decades. The economy's renewed momentum and macro-economic stabilisation - effected through an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-sponsored consolidation programme initiated in 2001 - affords it greater insulation to shock than it has previously enjoyed. While the human cost of Friday's earthquake is undoubtedly horrifying, the economic ramifications are likely to be contained.

Impact on Infrastructure

The impact on the infrastructure in the affected areas has been devastating. Towns and villages have been badly damaged - and, in some cases, flattened. Roads have been blocked, cutting off access to some areas, while bridges, communications facilities and utilities will all have sustained damage or been destroyed. That said, much of the area is remote - the quake has affected tribal areas and the less densely populated northern areas - and none of the country's main cities, industrial or commercial areas, or key communications and other infrastructure connections have been affected. As a result of this, Global Insight has decided not to raise its Operational Risk Rating for Pakistan - not least because it already stands at a relatively high 3.75, reflecting the country's overall infrastructural deficiencies.

Impact on Domestic Politics

It will be interesting to see if there is any political fallout from the earthquake. The date of 12 October marks the sixth anniversary of the military's move to take power, by ousting the government of then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif. It has secured its grasp on power since then, and exerts a heavy influence on government policy. Musharraf, as the military's commander and president, is a focal point for opposition criticism, which has intensified ahead of the anniversary. The opposition has already attacked him and his government for failing to react swiftly enough to the weekend's disaster, although Musharraf has responded equally critically to this, reportedly saying, 'instead of blame game, this worst national tragedy demands united action to overcome it'. Much will depend on how the relief effort pans out; the military has been mobilised in its full capacity, and if it is ultimately regarded as having handled the situation well, Musharraf and the government will emerge from the situation in an even stronger position. Irrespective of this, the opposition's prospects lie largely in the hands of Musharraf, given his threat to have the main party leaders arrested on various charges. Until Musharraf shows some sense of conciliation, the opposition will be unable to function fully.

Impact on Peace Process with India

One area of particular interest is the impact that the disaster will have on the continuing peace process with India. Opinion is divided over whether it will provide a boost or simply highlight how deep the divisions are between the two governments. Those who are optimistic over the process have argued that the earthquake may have a similar effect to that witnessed in the Indonesian province of Aceh following the December 2004 tsunami. The province was decimated, prompting rebels who had been involved in conflict with the military for more than two decades to finally agree a peace deal with the authorities. As such, some have argued that the earthquake will provide a chance for India and Pakistan to rebuild alongside one another, in an region that is at the heart of their bilateral disputes.

Whether this scenario plays out depends largely on how Pakistan responds to India's offer of aid; so far, the tensions have been apparent. Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh has offered his condolences and aid, including military helicopters. While this is exactly the aid that Musharraf has called for, he has stepped back from the offer, being quoted in the Financial Times as announcing that 'we need to work out what we would like from them'. Furthermore, some observers have argued that given the sensitive nature of the heavily militarised Line of Control (LoC) - the de facto border separating the two sectors of Kashmir - as well as the overall Kashmir dispute, Pakistan is unlikely to allow Indian relief workers into its territory.

It has therefore been argued that the earthquake will do little to support the peace process. Perhaps symbolising this, the flagship bus link linking Srinagar with Muzaffarabad has had to be suspended, because the so-called 'Peace Bridge' has been extensively damaged. As a result, it is likely to be some time before the service is resumed. It has also been suggested that goodwill will ultimately change little. Ajai Sahni, head of Delhi's Institute for Conflict Management think-tank, has been quoted by The Hindu as arguing that 'the negotiating table decides the power equation. That equation of power is not going to change by an earthquake'.

Irrespective of all these arguments, it still remains unclear what impact the earthquake has had on the forces in the region - both military and guerrilla. Both Pakistan and India have suffered military losses, but these run into the tens and hundreds, rather than thousands. Military infrastructure will inevitably have been damaged, particularly on Pakistan's side of the LoC, which may create a sense of vulnerability and, consequently, fresh tensions. The scale of casualties that the guerrilla fighters will have suffered is still unknown. India has long contended that militants cross from Pakistan-administered Kashmir into its territory, and it is not unwarranted to argue that guerrilla forces will have suffered some losses.

Over the longer term, it will also be interesting to see what impact the reconstruction process has on the region, as the militant element partially feeds off individuals' lack of prospects. Initially, the region is likely to see the transit of refugees, moving to larger Pakistani cities in search for work and housing. However, the injection of reconstruction money into the region may improve prospects, potentially undermining the militant cause.

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