Disaster and response – lessons from Rostaq

Recent years have seen the emergence of disaster management systems, particularly when there are major humanitarian crises. It has been recognised that single organisations can no longer make adequate responses.

CASE STUDY - Rostaq Earthquake, Afghanistan, 4 February 1998 - Details 2223 people killed out of a population of 17600 in a quake of

  • 6.1 on the Richter scale
  • The area Remote and mountainous
  • The people Agro-pastoralists involved in an ongoing civil war
  • Difficulties post-quake Security for those offering humanitarian aid, distance from main settlements, lack of vehicles and fuel, poor weather
  • Goals post-quake To eliminate threats to life and health, return displaced people to their villages
  • Time scales
    • 2 days after the quake first help arrived!
    • 2–12 days after the quake medical emergencies are landed
    • 13–30 days after the quake the main emergency food and non-food arrives
    • 81 days after the quake NGOs depart Rostaq.
  • Pressures
    • Less than a week after the quake western journalists were in place in Rostaq. Their presence created enormous pressure on the agencies to be seen to be doing something, and quickly.
    • Results some trucks and supplies get through in the early phases of the UN response, but a week after the quake the mission is paralysed. Renewed efforts eventually secure airdrops and large donkey caravans to get the food and aid to those that need it.

What has been learnt from Rostaq?

The response by various NGOs at Rostaq were such that brief windows of opportunity immediately following the quake were lost and that the logistics of multi-agency responses have to be co-ordinated. From Rostaq much has been taken and many lessons have been learned.

  • The temporary alliance amongst NGOs and more major players must be centralised as situations and responses get paralleled. A waste of resources results.
  • Trade-offs have to be avoided. They cost lives, some 700 estimated in Rostaq, as decisions about decision making, speed, reliability and cost responses were made.
  • In effect, lower effectiveness occurred during the early life-saving phase of the rescue and higher effectiveness was experienced during the later ‘quality-oflife’ window.
  • Co-ordinated and controlled large groups of NGOs can work well and complement one another and, importantly, save lives.


On 2 May, another, even worse earthquake struck the same region. This time the international agencies responded in more co-ordinated ways. Helicopters were quickly procured for needs assessments and relief deliveries; the Swiss Disaster Corps was brought in to connect all activity centres with telecommunication; and Islamabad was made the command centre for both the UN and other NGOs. The relief community had learned some lessons from its earlier experience.


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