Dealing with disaster By Naseer Memon - Tuesday 19th April 2011

JAPAN is currently wading through the debris of the recent earthquake and tsunami. One of the world’s largest economies and a technologically advanced nation, Japan boasts nearly flawless earthquake-proof structures and a highly efficient tsunami early warning system.
What lessons do the Japanese natural disasters hold for a country like Pakistan? A cursory glance would suggest that the occurrence of a disaster of lesser magnitude could simply erase our coastal areas from the map. Some facts leading to such a doomsday conclusion are mentioned as follows.
The Indian Ocean doesn’t have a single tsunamograph to receive accurate data on any approaching tsunami. Tide gauges installed in Pakistan are not effective enough to issue timely warnings. The time lag between receiving a warning and evacuation could be fatally small and result in disastrous ramifications.
Pakistan’s coast has hardly any scientifically developed tsunami evacuation plans in the public knowledge. Some isolated, localised drills were undertaken through international support agencies, but their efficacy is yet to be tested. Also, the simulation of real-time disaster through mock evacuations is little more than playing a video game. An actual disaster may make short work of all arrangements.
Communities settled along the approximately 1,100km long coast are scantly aware of tsunami risks in their areas. Many would not even imagine that a peacefully subsiding wave may be followed by a mightier one.
Coastal communities, especially those in tiny islands and convoluted creeks, have neither elevated ground nor enough time to escape the tides and are therefore exposed to the risk of being interred in a watery grave should a tsunami strike. Similar would be the fate of thousands of others on fishing voyages, who normally remain incommunicado for several weeks.
Coastal communities are virtually bereft of gadgets to receive early warnings. Many would know about the tsunami only when it is too late. They have hardly any awareness of the measures required to escape the jaws of death. Seldom is anyone aware of the natural warning signs of an approaching tsunami.
The institutions responsible for disaster response are in a shambles. The recent floods exposed the capabilities of disaster management authorities at the provincial and district levels. Communities’ evacuation becomes an administrative nightmare during disasters.
Karachi — the largest city — is located on the coast and the present infrastructure and land-use pattern may trigger a disaster of immense proportions. The city’s managers don’t seem to have learnt from the experience of narrowly escaping passing cyclones in recent years. Other densely populated coastal districts and towns such as Jiwani, Gwadar, Pasni, Ormara, Sonmiani, Badin and Thatta are in the same slumber of ignorance and can be caught unawares if any disaster struck the coast.
The gravity of the risk could be judged from the fact that there are four major faults around Karachi and along the southern coast of Makran. The Makran Subduction Zone, having the potential of generating earthquakes, is among the least studied subduction zones in the world. Normally, an earthquake of over 8.0 on the Richter scale could generate a fatal tsunami in the area.
With most current structures in violation of building codes, a jolt of such magnitude would raze a city like Karachi. Any tsunami in the zone would barely allow seven to 15 minutes for communities to escape on the Makran coast. It may, however, take more than an hour to reach Karachi’s coast and cause decimation, if the preceding earthquake and ensuing chaos leaves any neighbourhood standing.
The vulnerability of Pakistan’s coast to a tsunami cannot be ruled out. In fact, tsunamis are not an alien phenomenon for Pakistan’s coast. On Nov 28, 1945, a great earthquake off Pakistan’s Makran coast generated a destructive tsunami in the ocean. Cyclones are another potential threat to Pakistan’s coast. There is empirical evidence of increased frequency and intensity of cyclones. According to a report (A Review of Disaster Management Policies and Systems in Pakistan), the coastal areas of Sindh are most vulnerable and exposed to cyclones. Historically, the Sindh coast experienced four major cyclones in a century. However, in the period between 1971 and 2001, 14 cyclones were recorded. This sufficiently indicates the severity of the risk.
Pakistan’s coast is, however, blessed with a unique natural shield of mangrove forests to protect against ferocious cyclones and tsunamis. This marvel of nature has a unique root system that can absorb up to 80 per cent of wave energy. No man-made structure can compete with this natural bulwark against disaster. Japan spent $1.5bn to erect the world’s largest sea wall in the city’s harbour at Kamaishi, yet the city was submerged by surmounting tides.
Research carried out after 2004’s tsunami shows ample evidence that those shorelines with mangrove forests suffered lesser damage during the tsunami. Imprudence, however, knows no bounds and Pakistan is at the verge of losing this protective fence. Mangrove cover along the coast has shrunk to a third of its spread in the 1970s, adding to the risk of disaster.
From satellite-activated early warning systems to elevated ground, Pakistan needs an amalgam of technology, preparedness and proper disaster planning to deal with any future natural disaster. The most rewarding investment would be in community-based risk management. It includes creating awareness in communities about the natural signs of disaster, identifying and developing escape routes and elevated ground and training volunteers on how to manage disasters.
The writer is chief executive of the Strengthening Participatory Organisation.

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