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Natural disasters, unnatural outcomes

July 11, 2013

The evening began with rain and thunder and the night ended in pitch darkness. Flooded streets and rail tracks left cars, buses, and trains submerged in water as the city literally shut down after rains crippled the urban infrastructure.

No, it’s not about flooding in Lahore or Karachi; it’s about Toronto, Canada’s largest city, which was paralyzed by flash floods on Monday when thousands were stranded at work as heavy rains flooded parts of the city. Most affected was the transport infrastructure causing disruptions to regional trains and underground subways. For those whose commute, it would take 30 minutes or less on a regular day, they spent several hours making their way home through streets submerged in water only to be met with flooded basements at home. Losses are estimated at $700 million dollars.

It has been a tough few weeks in Canada. Last month flash floods in Alberta destroyed several neighbourhoods in Calgary and other towns in Western Canada. Even animals from the Calgary’s zoo had to be evacuated. Last week a runaway train in Lac-Mégantic, a small town in Eastern Canada, killed 20 and completely destroyed the town’s centre. Another 30 are still missing, but are feared dead. The Canadians have faced natural and man-made disasters with courage and resolve. More importantly, they have done this peacefully and without holding their government or a conspiracy theory responsible for their sudden misfortunes.

Imagine the grief in Lac-Mégantic, a small town of 6,000 individuals, losing 50 people and part of the town in a completely avoidable accident. In such a tight-knit small community, no one would have been left untouched by the tragedy. Still, the owner of the rail company, whose train caused death and destruction, arrived in town and held an impromptu press conference. Had this been Pakistan, the owners would have either fled the country or been lynched by the unruly mob.

Why is that people in Canada and other similar places react peacefully to unprecedented challenges and hardships that may even include the death of their loved ones. And why is that people in places like Pakistan people resort to violence and irrational behaviour when tragedy strikes? Why in Pakistan, for instance, the mob almost always torches the bus and tries to harm the driver after it accidentally runs over a pedestrian or another motorist?

Heavy rainfall on Monday left Toronto flooded and without power for two days. Our neighbourhood in a Toronto suburb was without power for over 40 hours. Such events are rare in Toronto. In fact, up until last Monday, most Canadians had not heard of load shedding. This changed when the City’s electricity provider tweeted: “We are currently at capacity with the supply of electricity provided by Hydro One and at their request we have begun load shedding.”

The newspapers had to decode it for Canadians: ‘load shedding equals controlled blackouts’.

A GO Train is stranded on flooded tracks in Toronto. -AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Winston Neutel
A GO Train is stranded on flooded tracks in Toronto. -AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Winston Neutel

With losses running into in hundreds of millions of dollars in Toronto, and into billions in Alberta, there is, however, no finger pointing at the government or worse, resorting to conspiracy theories. People in Toronto realise that flooding was caused by extreme weather that dumped 126 mm of rain in a single day.

“We had 90 millimetres of rain within an hour and a half at the airport,” Peter Kimbell, a meteorologist at Environment Canada, told Canada’s National Post.

Now, contrast this with what happened in Pakistan on July 23, 2001 when flash floods inundated several neighbourhoods in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Within a short span of 10 hours between 6:00 am and 4:00 pm, 620 mm of rainfall was recorded in the region causing massive flooding in the twin cities. In total, 150 lives were lost and almost 400,000 individuals were directly affected. The damages were estimated at $250 million.

What happened after the floods was interesting. First, were the accusations against the government that it should have been able to pre-empt flooding. Such expectations of any government are unrealistic. Even Canada’s most advanced city, Toronto, buckled under 126 mm of rainfall. How could Rawalpindi’s administration, with its meager resources, pre-empt flooding caused by over 600 mm of rain?

Many conspiracy theories emerged soon after. Some blamed the administration of deliberately releasing water from Rawal Dam to save Islamabad. Others blamed India of redirecting the flood to Pakistan. And then there were others who believed that the floods were engineered by the government to divert people’s attention. Feeding the rumour mill were several news outlets who refused to educate the masses about the fact that natural disasters are hard to predict and, at times, impossible to avoid.

What the governments could do is to plan and deliver improved relief services and support. It is, however, known from the 2001 and subsequent floods, as well as the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan’s northern areas that the state apparatus continues to be ill-prepared to deal with natural or other disasters. Thus the inadequate post disaster relief feeds public anger and makes masses more susceptible to rumours and false propaganda.

Unlike man-made disasters, extreme natural disasters are becoming more frequent. A good starting point for post disaster relief would be to acknowledge the fact that governments do not and cannot control everything, especially climate. Canadians know this and that is why they join the government in relief efforts.

Pakistanis have done the same in the past. Without exception they have assisted the state in disaster relief. But at the same time, Pakistanis continue to subscribe to conspiracy theories. They may want to give up the practice as it impedes relief efforts and creates an environment of distrust.