The recent floods in Pakistan, which have again caused so much damage have highlighted the urgent need for early warning systems at the district level that actually work. However, one need not look far for a model early warning system — there is one right here in the country in Mansehra District that has proven its effectiveness during the massive floods of 2010.
The comprehensive Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) system was set up as a pilot project in 2008 with the help of the German Organisation for Technical Cooperation (earlier known as GTZ, and now called GIZ). “What we did was to consolidate all the efforts on one single platform by building the capacity of the district government and the community members,” explains Syed Harir Shah, a project manager who currently works for DRR-Mountain Rescue for the German Red Cross. The community members in Mansehra included around 6,000 volunteers from various Union Councils (around 3,000 school children as well) who were trained in DRR activities.
This was the first time a technical early warning system was put in place in a district in Pakistan. The Met department does not issue area specific flood warnings so really it is left to the communities to save themselves wherever they can, using indigenous early warning systems (loudspeakers in mosques, etc). “The real challenge is to get everyone, all the stakeholders like the irrigation department which is in charge of river monitoring and the works and services department which is in charge of roads and in fact the entire district government to work together,” explains Shah who was really the brains behind the project in Mansehra, although he says that he was just “facilitating”. He comes from Chitral and has worked with various NGOs for many years, specialising in disaster management. “In Mansehra we set up an incident command system which you could contact through 1122 (a toll free number) — this was a comprehensive, integrated response system.”
The office of the deputy commissioner (DC) was used so that the police departments could also be involved as well as all the NGOs that were working in the area (many had been active since the earthquake struck the region in 2005). “In 2009 we prepared the first contingency plan and held mock trials and simulations. Our work came to the notice of the chief minister of the KP province at the time and he asked other districts to look at the Mansehra plan,” recalls Shah. However, not much came out of that endeavour, but Mansehra district was ready when the floods of 2010 hit the district, especially in Balakot, Sirhan Valley and Kunhar River area.
“We had three-level response mechanisms in place for the floods,” explains Shah. “At 100mm, there would be no emergency as yet but we were to get ready to have all systems activated. At more than 150mm, we would mobilise and activate the system. At more than 200mm we would start evacuation of the villages.” The local Met department and irrigation department had special gauges to measure rainfall and river levels. Around 80-85 villages located in low-lying areas close to the river had already been identified. These villagers were asked to shift with their precious belongings to identified safe places with the help of community volunteers following safe routes. All this had been practiced in advance so the villagers knew what to do.
By then the District Emergency Operation Centre was activated by the DC’s office and it was linked to the police, army and NGOs. All information was passed on (how much rain, how much water coming in, etc.). Phone calls were made to Kaghan and Naran, the catchment areas.
“We actually deployed people to find out exactly how much water was coming,” recalls Shah. “We knew by 7pm on July 27, 2010 how much water was coming at what velocity and our technical team analysed the situation. They made the calculations and told us we had a lead time of three hours for the water to reach the area.” As a result, around 500 to 600 houses were evacuated in Balakot.
“We used loudspeakers in mosques and mobile phones to alert the local people. The message was in Urdu and simple: please evacuate the area and do not go near the river.” The well-trained volunteers, who formed a part of the search and rescue teams, were given jeeps by pooling all the local government vehicles (which came to around 350 vehicles) and they used them to support the local community.
According to Shah, “The police, local government agencies, tehsil municipal administrations — all played a tremendous role. Even the imams of the mosques helped. We issued the early warning for evacuation at 7pm and by 10pm more than 500 homes had been evacuated including the tehsil headquarters hospital and police station. All their equipment, including an expensive generator, was shifted to higher ground. By 10.30pm the floodwater had washed away 500 homes and the hospital — but they were all empty by then.” The people had managed to not only save their lives, but their precious belongings and livestock giving them the resilience to rebuild their lives.
“I was amazed by the dedication of the local people, all working together. Even the assistant commissioner, Tasleem Khan, who had been appointed as the deputy incident commander sat for 64 hours without break in the emergency centre. Really it all seems like a miracle when I think back.” In Mansehra, with just a little bit of funding from GTZ for equipment and proper training and a whole lot of coordination, an entire district was saved — why can’t the rest of Pakistan learn from this success story?