KARACHI, May 4: “Dec-entralising disaster management is the key to make it effective. The local government system in Bangladesh is the backbone of the country’s disaster management programme.
“There have been ups and downs but the system of local government has never broken down in the country,” said an independent researcher from Bangladesh while talking to Dawn on the sidelines of an interactive session organised by a non-governmenal organisation on Friday.
Khurshid Alam works as a consultant on disaster and climate change with specific focus on global humanitarian policy, climate change adaptation, livelihood, humanitarian response and disaster risk reduction. He has worked extensively around the world, in almost all major emergencies over the last 12 years and his current visit to the city is related to interacting and sharing his expertise with representatives of civil society organisations and journalists.
Highlighting the need for decentralising disaster management, Mr Alam argued that it was critical to include vulnerable local communities in disaster management as an effective strategy to cope with a disaster couldn’t be shaped by government alone.
“The government in Bangladesh decided after a debate that disaster management was a localised affair where everybody could play its role. Bangladesh’s disaster management is not run by its prime minister or donors but rather by its local government system. Union councils at the grass-root level make fast assessment of the disaster management needs of their own villages and take required steps with the help from the government,” he said.
There was also a public pressure on public representatives to perform as they know they could be rejected in the next elections, he added.
Tracing the history of the major cyclones that hit Bangladesh and how the country learnt to cope with natural disasters, Mr Alam said that the country was known to have the highest mortality rate in natural disasters in the world and development gains were severely affected by losses in disasters.
“But now we are coming out of it. There has been a significant decline in mortalities which used to occur in cyclones earlier,” he observed, while pointing out that half a million people died in a major cyclone which struck the country in 1970 whereas 150,000 and 30,000 deaths were reported in cyclones (of the similar category) that took place in 1991 and 2007, respectively.
Delving further into Bangladesh’s reasonably good performance in disaster management, he said that initially the government focus was only on saving lives and, later, on flood control. But, gradually, the significance of community involvement was recognised and it was felt that communities should be empowered to manage a disaster.
After experiencing these tragedies, the government invested heavily in factors that could lessen the impact of a disaster that included institutional preparedness dealing with natural calamities as well as health in order to tackle the post-disaster challenges.
“Now when you would visit Bangladesh you would find every villager well aware about the disaster risks of his own village and their management,” he said.
Political and economic power structure of a society or community, he said, was very important because disasters also provided an opportunity to people to benefit. “One needs to see who is the beneficiary in the end and has the poor benefited (in the rehabilitation process). For instance, it has been seen that the poor remain deprived and government measures only benefited the powerful,” he said.
Speaking about the challenges Pakistan faced, Mr Alam said: “I hope my prediction is wrong. But, it appears that the country could face a bigger human security crisis on account of climate change impact, increasing salinity, food and water shortages. This could result in migration to urban areas and the situation could become tense since cities are sensitive to changes in demographic patterns. It’s a complex situation.” But, at the same, he believed that the country had the resources and potential to make effective strategies to counter such problems in the coming years.
Pluralism and a support paradigm, he said, were vital components of disaster management. Explaining this point, he said that everyone should be allowed to participate in disaster management. While Bangladesh was homogenous, Pakistan was diverse. The variation in geographical conditions made it necessary to have localised strategies, but experiences needed to be shared to develop a national database on disaster management. “Communities should be supported to help themselves rather the government or donors doing things for them,” he said.
In reply to a question about regional cooperation in disaster management, he said that the key problem, however, was a lack of political commitment on part of regional states to collaborate on the issue of disaster, he said.