Analysis Azad Kashmir Azad Kashmir

The role of social media in an emergency | By Ershad Mahmud

Remembering the devastating 2005 earthquake and the role of social media platforms in facilitating humanitarian aid

The role of social media in an emergency

In October 2005, an earthquake destroyed several parts of northern Pakistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, particularly Muzaffarabad, killing around 80,000 people and leaving 4 million homeless.

The capital city was hit the hardest in terms of fatalities and destruction. A huge number of people had gone missing.

That evening, I tried hard to reach out to my friends and relatives living in Muzaffarabad but could not succeed in establishing contact with them.

The landline communication system was badly damaged.

I had to travel to Muzaffarabad to inquire about the wellbeing of my friends and relatives.

It took me two days to reach there as roads and bridges had been destroyed by the landslides and the collapsing of mountains during the earthquake.

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Contrary to this situation, after an earthquake that struck Mirpur city on September 24 last year, several of my friends appeared on Facebook and other social media networks within a short time and marked their status as “safe”.

This gave me great solace and I did not call them, supposing that they must have been busy in rescuing themselves and helping others.

Meanwhile, the state authorities as well as various relief and rescue organisations started appearing on social media networks to share the latest information and guide the affected people about safe zones and availability of ambulances.

Kashmir Orphans Relief Trust (KORT), one of the leading charity organisations, immediately set up a Facebook call centre that received hundreds of calls from the affected people as well as from the potential donors says KORT manager Sajid Dilawar Khan.

He says that within the first 24 hours a huge number of volunteers, mostly young people, joined the KORT to provide relief and shelter to fellow citizens.

Facebook and Twitter emerged as crucial components of the humanitarian response in Mirpur’s earthquake.

Over a million Mirpuris are settled in the United Kingdom.

They maintain close family ties and wanted real-time information about the calamity and the whereabouts of their family members back home to provide them the required help.

The social media networks turned out to be a convenient platform to develop communication between the affected families and the diaspora.

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These played an instrumental role in bringing substantial financial and material support from the United Kingdom.

Recalling the early days of earthquake, the Mirpur deputy commissioner told this writer that social media had immensely helped identify the affected areas and people who needed emergency support.

According to his estimate, out of 160,000 residents of the earthquake-hit area, nearly 100,000 were cell phone users.

Therefore, the local authorities set up numerous WhatsApp groups, where people and voluntaries used to post videos that quickly drew the administration’s attention.

Further, this provided an easy forum to request aid to fulfil the immediate needs of the affected people, seek help from the local and international donors and develop coordination with the relief workers present in the region.

For instance, 90 percent of the donations collected by the KORT were the outcome of the social media campaign, says Sajid Dilawar.

Several relief organisations shared their daily activities on social media to apprise the public and donors alike about their work.

There was no tool available other than the social media to engage the affected communities. Without properly engaging a community, a humanitarian crisis cannot be addressed appropriately.

I noticed that due to regular updates on Facebook and Twitter, the affected people became part of the humanitarian response as they were engaged in the conversations, unlike the 2005 earthquake.

No abductions or stealing were reported in Mirpur as the administration was constantly informing the public about the unfolding situation. This drastically reduced the spread of rumors and fake news.

I was informed by the local administration that they had been following social media intensely to get firsthand information and figure out the needs of people and their expectations from the authorities.

I was informed that at several points prompt rescue action was taken by virtue of the social media inputs.

The social media also gave a voice to the affected communities and empowered them. In the age of social media, the traditional print and electronic media cannot prove as helpful in such crises.

It also improved the process of the accountability of state authorities and humanitarian agencies by facilitating people to instantly raise their voices against any injustice and point out flaws in the authorities’ approach to mitigate the suffering of the victims.


The writer is an Islamabad/ Rawalakot based analyst. Email: ershad.mahmud@gmail.com

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