Waiting for Armageddon
As the earth heats up, the frequency of rainfalls increases and temperatures are recorded by new highs and lows – weather extremes once considered anomalies are now becoming a part our daily lives.
While most scientists are careful not to link specific weather events to climate-change trends, some suspect these skewed weather reports have a lot to do with climate change – a consequence of global warming.
And with these natural calamities, comes death and destruction.
Pakistan had not even pieced its life together after the 2005 earthquake, when the 2010 deluge submerged a fifth of the country. The following year, the country went into the throes of yet another bout of floods.
Disasters are limited by narrow time margins and technology offers limited advanced warning, forcing us to pre-empt and prepare for them to strike – at any place, any time.
“Considering topography as diverse as Pakistan’s and the unpredictable climate somersaults, we need to be prepared for all kinds of disasters at any instance,” Naseer Memon, who heads the Strengthening Participatory Organisation, told Dawn.com in an interview.
Since earthquakes cannot be predicted well in advance, modern science has been unable to develop an early warning system. However, Memon said, floods can be forecast to a great extent.
“Except for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the 2010 deluge came in the shape of flash floods, miseries could have been assuaged in the rest of the country,” he reflected.
‘Fighting canons with anachronistic arrows’
Has Pakistan learned anything from these tragedies? Is there a plan in place to stem the losses when horror strikes? Are we revisiting building codes? Are we geared towards sustainable development in the rebuilding process? And more importantly, given our peculiar landscape, is the government prepared for any lurking disasters?
Most experts remain unconvinced about Pakistan’s preparedness to meet the vagaries of weather.
To each disaster, experts say, the government’s approach has been reactive.
“There has been no conscious effort to learn from the past,” said Ali Tauqir Sheikh, head of Leadership for Environment and Development.
“The government never set up any task forces or commissions to create a list of mistakes made in the past and how to learn lessons from them. No funds have been raised for disaster awareness, response or its preparedness,” he told Dawn.com.
It comes as little surprise to Sheikh that the government’s policy on growth does not even deliberate on disaster. “It remains an ignored chapter.”
“It [government] waits for disaster to occur and then determines the nature and magnitude of the response,” said Memon.
“A fraction of the amount spent on disaster response could prevent colossal damage, but proper planning, institutional capacity and political will are required for things to work.”
Zafar Qadir, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) acknowledged that the government’s response “until recent past” was reactive.
Despite the floods of 2010, no exercise to formulate a national disaster risk reduction policy was undertaken until June 2011. The National Disaster Management Commission had not bothered to meet even once before the floods of 2011 and there were no volunteers working for NDMA and no National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), as authorised by the NDMA Act, has been raised. Only a handful of officials at the national and district levels had been trained.
However, Qadir said that with the introduction of Disaster Management System under NDM Act 2010, the authority was trying to “think and move ahead of disasters” in order to prevent and mitigate the negative impacts of disasters.
Dismissing the NDMA altogether, Sheikh said: “It [NDMA] is in the air only, it has no operational capacity on the ground.”
In their present state, these institutions are “shambolic” and cannot deliver, agreed Memon.
“They are bereft of capable human resource and do not have sufficient wherewithal to discharge their obligations. They are fighting canons with anachronistic arrows,” he added.
Little wonder then, that the government has been unable to respond to disasters in the climate context.
“The intensity of disasters due to climate change is increasing and we need to undertake climate-compatible development to assuage the damage,” emphasised Sheikh, who is also the Asia Director of Climate & Development Knowledge Network (CDKN).
CDKN, an initiative by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) supports developing countries to tackle challenges posed by climate change.
Qadir, however said, the focus is gradually shifting on investing more towards preparedness, mitigation and disaster risk reduction rather than reacting to disasters primarily with provisions of relief.
“The new system’s orientation is now proactive rather than reactive,” he said.
Memon, however, remained unconvinced.
Calling the various disaster management authorities at the federal, provincial and district level “anaemic,” he said they needed human, technological and financial “resource injection” for effective performance.
The NDMA perspective
The NDMA chairman pointed out that the disaster management system was still in its formative phase.
“We are trying our best to build capacities, train human resource for disaster management, raise awareness and advocate safer living among our communities. We are also working on strengthening different response agencies working in the field and creating special expertise like raising urban search and rescue teams, introducing emergency services in all provinces based on the model of Punjab’s Rescue 1122.
In addition, he said, the NDMA was aiming at establishment of strategic warehouses with relief inventory spread all over Pakistan.
“In order to reduce risk to human lives and properties, NDMA has established multi-hazard early warning system in most of multi- disaster prone districts across the country.”
For these tasks, huge resources need to be pumped into the institution at not just the federal, but provincial and district level too.
“Resource constraints certainly affect the performance as well as efficiency,” rued Qadir.
While disaster management is now a discipline that is taught at universities, practically, it translates into building the capacity of an institution like the NDMA. This means huge resource allocation on a big scale, which is possible only if there is a strong political will.
The government’s job is not done by just setting up the NDMA. The citizens and other government departments need to share some responsibility in averting disasters and managing them when they strike.
In particular, says Saleem H. Ali, professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, the building infrastructure and urban planning system remains unregulated.
“There is a far greater need for investment in retrofitting older buildings to withstand earthquakes,” he told Dawn.com.
Ali warned that older cities such as Lahore and Karachi were more vulnerable in this regard than Islamabad, which had relatively modern buildings and added: “Both Lahore and Karachi are within potential earthquake zones.”
The same was endorsed by Sheikh, who emphasised the need for revisiting building codes and fixing strict standards for construction to minimise human loss.
Learning from neighbours
In addition, it’s imperative for schools and hospitals at community levels to act as community disaster response centres so that the affected people can be moved to these safer locations when disaster strikes instead of huge population displacements that have been witnessed in the recent past.
“We don’t have to look too far,” said Sheikh, giving an example of Bangladesh, which had reinforced its school and hospitals infrastructure.
In the 1970 Bhola cyclone, the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded, Sheikh said, over 500,000 people lost their lives in the storm. “In 2009, a cyclone of the same intensity took a toll of not more than 350!”
Traditional wisdom and community initiatives, too, can play an important part in mitigating damage to a large extent and must be considered, added Memon. But he explained that poverty and political dis-empowerment have deprived the people to opt from safer choices.
“Most of the people living in flood plains are anchored to those areas because they cannot afford living at safer locations. Their ramshackle houses and rickety infrastructure need resources to insulate them from the wrath of climate,” he said.
However, at the private and individual level, Ali is quite encouraged by the platforms developed by some social entrepreneurs. “They have done incredibly well in handling relief work,” he pointed out, adding: “People like Umar Saif, who developed an SMS tool that was useful in disaster management coordination, should be encouraged.
But with three major catastrophes, have we learned any lessons to brave nature’s fury if disaster strikes again?
Memon is skeptical and thinks at the policy and planning level little has been learnt.
“We hardly see any visible change in attitude and actions. From institutions to infrastructure we have not taken any strides to be proud of.”
Without mincing words he added: “I am afraid any disaster in near future would not be less egregious.”
There are ways to measure the readiness of a country to cope with various categories of natural and man-made disaster. Memon suggested certain urgent steps for government to consider. These include vulnerability mapping of potential disasters; looking into locally-guided disaster risk reduction and response planning and fortification of disaster response organisations as a beginning.
The author is a freelance journalist.