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Comment | Disaster Mismanagement: Lessons of the East Azerbaijan Quakes


18 Sep 2012 18:48Comments

How political paranoia, corruption, and in-fighting hampered relief efforts, while the humanitarian crisis continues.

Morad Mansouri is a pen name for a staff writer at Iran Labor Report. He lives in Iran. His first feature for Tehran Bureau was selected by the New Yorker's Alex Ross for the Best Music Writing anthology last year.

[ comment ] In the first hours after the two major earthquakes that struck East Azerbaijan province last month, groups of civilians from surrounding areas rushed to the aid of the victims. Soon after, volunteers began to arrive from the rest of the country. The odd response of the government, which provided only late and limited news coverage of the disaster, contributed to concerns that there would be a repeat of the disorganized delivery of aid that followed the earthquake outside the southern city of Bam in 2003. People's growing distrust of the government and their belief that it is rife with corruption at every level further spurred volunteer civilian efforts.

The quake leveled dozens of villages, and scores more sustained serious damage. Few villages in the region between Ahar, Haris, Khadja, and Varzagan are in any shape to sustain normal life. In an earthquake-prone region devoid of any quake-resistant buildings, the scale of the disaster, in fact, was much less than it could have been, in part because the two primary quakes struck around five in the afternoon, while many farmers were still out in the fields.

The government entrusted its disaster response primarily to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and secondarily to the Red Crescent Society. Less than 30 hours after the first quake struck, official search and rescue operations in the rubble were declared complete.

In addition to material donations, many civic groups brought to bear expertise that surpassed the government's, such as knowledge of local customs and traditions, trauma counseling, education about public health hazards, and organizing trash collection and sanitation. The efforts to coordinate aid delivery between various civilian groups and the government were less successful than they could have been due to political interference and mismanagement, which manifested in three primary ways:

(1) The government was fearful of the presence of civilian groups from other regions. It routinely interprets civic organizations' popularity as a political threat. As a result, a tense security climate pervaded the earthquake-stricken region within hours after the initial quakes. In villages, the mood grew more oppressive by the day. Apart from the arrests of civilian volunteers that made the news, many others were detained simply for being on the scene or taking photographs. In many cases, instead of cooperating with civic groups, government officials rejected their offers of assistance and cooperation or buried them in bureaucratic quagmires.

(2) Petty bureaucrats' scrambling for personal gain from the huge volume of donations reflected what had been seen in previous disasters. Today, you still can procure unused tents intended as donations to Bam earthquake victims in 2003. Efforts by local administrators in East Azerbaijan to keep aid depot locations secret must be understood in this light.

(3) Many familiar with local conditions believe that in-fighting between government factions at the highest levels had a dire effect on the management of this disaster. One long-time East Azerbaijani civic activist, who requested anonymity, said that the Center for Disaster Management was effectively shackled and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's message of condolence was not disseminated for several days in order to undermine the Supreme Leader and his camp by fomenting popular discontent in the region.

Civic activists have enumerated critical issues that could lead to serious long-term repercussions of which the government seems oblivious: Civilian aid was so voluminous that survivors often competed for provisions for the future instead of cooperating to alleviate the problems at hand. Damage to livestock stables and ranches has forced owners to liquidate their flocks at fire-sale prices, leaving little available meat in the affected region. The destruction of agricultural support and financial infrastructure will limit farmers' abilities to harvest and store their crops, forcing them to sell their produce at very low prices as well. Many day laborers who live on the fringes of towns in the region have lost their work and incomes since the quake. The lack of safe housing in many villages has forced survivors to view emigration to nearby cities as their only viable alternative. The rural housing shortage also means that the approaching cold season could result in a humanitarian disaster -- East Azerbaijan is one of the coldest regions in Iran.

Despite all these hurdles, there have been some positive outcomes. One of the most important has been the apparent drop in support for Pan-Turkism in the region and new energy behind ideals of national unity among the Azeri ethnic minority. The ongoing development of civic coalitions in parallel to the government for trust building and cooperation suggests that in the future aid to disaster victims could be more swift, focused, and efficient. It can only be hoped that the government has been reminded that half-hearted and mismanaged disaster response yields popular mistrust and weakening of political support.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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