Disaster management - I.A Rehman - August 5, 2010

Source : www.dawn.com

The colossal loss of life and property caused by heavy rains and floods in all parts of Pakistan, especially Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has raised quite a few distressing questions regarding the state of governance that cannot possibly be ignored.

Everybody knows that no country, however powerful or developed, has been able to develop total protection against natural calamities. Earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, flooding by rivers and excessive rains or snowfall have been taking their toll throughout the world. The only relevant question in such situations is whether a state can keep the losses to the minimum possible through a mix of measures adopted before and after a natural disaster.

It is doubtful if the people have become aware of the exact magnitude of the disaster that has struck Pakistan over the past couple of weeks. In fact, what the people in the rural areas, especially in the relatively inaccessible parts of the country, suffer as a result of a natural calamity is never fully documented or reported even.

However, it is quite clear that the situation is pretty grim. Over 1,000 people are reported to have perished in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone. Thousands of people were reported marooned in the mountainous regions of the province on Sunday. The infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges, has been ruined, thousands of houses have been washed away and crops on thousands of acres have been destroyed. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister may well be right in saying that his province has been pushed back by almost 50 years.

The loss of life in Punjab and Sindh has not been as high as in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but the economic losses, in terms of destruction of dwellings and standing crops, has been far heavier. Balochistan too has suffered heavy losses but as in the past the travails of that province have not been adequately reported. Were all these losses wholly unavoidable?

Pakistan is not unfamiliar with heavy rainfall and flooding by rivers after every few years. Did the authorities responsible for taking precautionary measures attend to their task? Was anybody looking after the maintenance of river beds and embankments? Could the loss of life and property be minimised by checking the growth of settlements in river beds or encroachments on katcha lands on a massive scale?

Experience has convinced us of the need to question the disaster-management agencies’ ability to comprehend their responsibilities. The government is reported to have taken the National Disaster-Management Authority (NDMA) to task for its undisclosed lapses but similar missiles should be fired at the Cabinet Division, Wapda, the provincial irrigation departments and the Civil Defence authorities. Quite a few minds need to be disabused of the notion that their duties begin only when a natural calamity has taken place. We are living in an age when great strides have been made in weather and climate forecasting. This year’s monsoon precipitation and the consequent swelling of rivers were not wholly unexpected. The people have a right to know as to what measures had been adopted to deal with the situation that had been, or should have been, anticipated.

The success of disaster-management steps depends to a considerable extent on the efficiency of early warning systems. Some improvement in this area was noticed after Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had been devastated. The evacuation of the people from the areas threatened by flood waters improved as huge bodies of water flowed downstream. But a large number of people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan were caught unawares. At many places, such as Malakand Division, the unavailability of reliable means of communication added to the population’s misery.

Unfortunately, the need for short-range radio transmitters in the mountainous region that was felt during the 2005 earthquake was not seriously addressed. Such services could have helped in saving quite a few lives in 2005. The story seems to have been repeated after last month’s rains. The efforts made by the TV channels to keep their audience informed about the flood situation and the adequacy or otherwise of relief measures are no doubt commendable but they cannot fill the role of an early warning system beyond a certain point.

A network of wireless reporting centres in non-urban settlements is what we urgently need in order to ensure an effective warning system. The fact that FM radio channels have been employed by some militant groups for terrorist activities should not be used as an excuse for denying licences for radio transmitters in remote areas.

At the moment all efforts must obviously be concentrated on mitigating the ordeal of the flood-affected population, on a careful assessment of losses suffered by the agricultural community and on developing a rehabilitation policy that pays due attention to the revival of economic activity. But as soon as the state of emergency eases, a high-powered inquiry should be conducted into the organisation of disaster-management services.

The present calamity has exposed the dangers Pakistan invites by ignoring the principle of public-private collaboration in the field of disaster management. The defence services play their traditional part in rescue and relief operations. Everything else is in the hands of civil bureaucracy whose efficiency is declining in direct proportion to the burgeoning cost of its maintenance. Civil society organisations have done something but perhaps not enough to merit honourable mention in dispatches. Barring a few signs of activity here and there, by and large political parties have not carried the burden they are expected to. They must realise that their long-term interests can only be served if they share the concerns of ordinary people and lay the foundations of their popularity by extending succour to communities in distress.

Throughout the present phase of the nation’s trial, the absence of dynamic local government institutions has been acutely felt. Local bodies by their very nature are best suited to deal with natural disasters and it will be a great pity if the consequences of messing up the local bodies’ affairs are not realised even now. One of the foremost lessons of the latest natural disaster is that Pakistan will create enormous problems for itself by resisting the logic of decentralisation of power and genuine empowerment of communities at as low a level as possible.

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