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Environmental Degradation, Social Marginalization and the Institutional Dynamics of Vulnerability in the October 8th, 2005 Earthquake (Pakistan)

Year: 2008-09

Locale: Allai, Indus Kohistan.


On 8th October 2005 an earthquake registering 7.6 on the Richter scale struck northeast part of Pakistan, killing at least 73,000 people, injuring another 70,000 and leaving 2.8 million without shelter and, thus susceptible to further injury. Preliminary estimates put the dollar equivalent of damage at $5.2 billion (U.S.). Understandably much initial attention to this earthquake centred on relief and rehabilitation. But within this focus scant attention was paid to the institutional conditions that made people vulnerable to such extreme damage. It is no longer novel in studies of hazards and disasters to point out that a ‘natural’ disaster, such as this earthquake, are produced at the interface of a geophysical event and a vulnerable human population and that the damage caused during a disaster is largely conditioned by the degree of vulnerability a state of individuals, groups, or communities defined in terms of their ability to cope with and adapt to any external stress placed on their livelihoods and wellbeing. Vulnerability, in turn, is a variable condition structured by a number of factors but always produced within the context of social institutions that can either magnify or reduce the potential for damage produced in the event of a physical event occurrence (Timmerman 1981, Chambers 1989, Cannon 1994). Disasters, such as the October 8th earthquake, take place at the interface of a physical event and a set of conditions that make particular people vulnerable to the damaging effects of that physical event. Ironically, activities characterized as ‘development’ can contribute to vulnerability (Cuny 1983, Lewis 1987).


Vulnerability is a function of two things, namely:

  • Exposure to the hazard
  • Sensitivity and resilience of the system

In this dynamic context, we examined vulnerability in the light of the following three elements:

  • Entitlements: These are legal and customary rights to exercise command over food and other necessities of life. Such rights are determined by endowments. Thus, if people own land, capital and labor, they can trade these in during times of crises for food and other items they need to survive.
  • Coping capacity: Each community develops an ability to cope. It is quite true that endowments are an important part of this. But one does not have to be rich to cope. Even poor communities can develop defense mechanisms against hazards.
  • Resilience: This refers to a systems ability to bounce back after to its original state after a disturbance. Basically, one is looking at the environmental system or more appropriately, ecosystem.

The research was survey based and centered on Allai in Indus Kohistan where the earthquake impacts were intense and the religious conservatism of the area exacerbated its impacts by hindering relief and rehabilitation activities.