Peshawar tornado: The 44 lives that could have been saved

Published April 30, 2015
A man collects belongings from his house which was destroyed following heavy rain in the outskirts of Peshawar. —Reuters
A man collects belongings from his house which was destroyed following heavy rain in the outskirts of Peshawar. —Reuters

Earlier on Sunday a tornado hit Peshawar and its surroundings, leaving dozens dead and many more injured; the unprecedented extreme weather startled residents and local climatologists. They don’t even have a name for it in Pushto.

On April 26, winds blowing over 110 km per hour, accompanied by rain and hail, destroyed structures and lives in Peshawar and adjoining areas.

By Monday, 44 were dead, another 200 injured, and millions were lost in property and livestock. Officials at the Pakistan Meteorological (Met) Department claim they had forewarned about “rain with dust-thunderstorm” for Peshawar.

Also read: Peshawar rain, winds caused by tornado, says Met office

Tornadoes are infrequent and thus, are not well known in Pakistan. They usually occur in March or April when days are getting warmer, but the nights are still cold. Similar weather conditions were reported in March 2001 in Chak Misran village (Sargodha), and in Bahadurpur village near Head Marala in March 2011. Scores died as a result. Because of climate change, one should expect the unexpected to occur frequently.

Pakistan has always experienced floods. Several political tenures have been cut short by floods in successive years. Despite the humongous losses in life and property, the society and the State has neither planned nor acted to mitigate the devastating impacts of natural disasters. The devastating earthquake in 2005, which caused the death of over 85,000 and injured many more, should have served as the final warning to the eternally unprepared nation.

In pictures: 'Mini cyclone' wrecks Peshawar

The equally devastating floods in 2010 revealed that Pakistanis were not ready yet again. They would rather deal with the aftermath than plan to minimise their exposure. With the unexpected changes in climate, the frequency and severity of natural disasters may exceed the resilience of the people.

Pakistan should act now to prevent future grief and losses that may exceed the nations’ collective capacity to heal.

The provincial authorities in KP reported that most deaths and losses occurred in informal settlements. The high-speed winds tore through the mud houses. Trees were uprooted and crushed structures underneath them. The low-income households, whose mud houses were destroyed, may not have the resources to fortify their humble abodes against earthquakes and tornadoes. But what about the rest? In the rural KP, hujras of even the landed gentry could best be categorised as informal structures.

If the people are not prepared to deal with natural disasters, so is not the State. KP’s minister of information, Mushtaq Ghani, revealed that the province did not have a weather warning system. Strange! A nation armed with nuclear weapons lacks sufficient warning systems.

Also read: Climate change: Pakistan's anti-climactic response

Mr. Ghani claimed that the Met department, operated by the feds, shared the last weather forecast on April 17 that carried no warning. The Met office’s website lists a press release dated April 17 that warned of rain and thundershowers for April 18 to 20. Officials at the Met claim they had warned of rain and thunderstorms for Peshawar two days in advance of April 26. Their website though mentions no warnings for April 26.

What the bickering between the KP government and the Met exposes is the lack of preparedness of the State. Shirk the blame is the name of the game. Expect no one to resign; it will be too honourable for the politicians or the State functionaries.

Earlier in 2011, the environment portfolio was devolved to provinces. Given that many environmental concerns are national, or global, an exclusive provincial mandate for the environment was not a prudent move. As a result, the Ministry of Planning in Islamabad took over the climate change portfolio. A new Ministry of National Disaster Management was subsequently created and ultimately renamed as the Ministry of Climate Change in April 2012. In the spirit of change, the PML-N government in 2013 disbanded the ministry only to resurrect it later.

Also read: Pakistan’s new climate change ministry merely “cosmetic”

Pakistan, at least on paper, has been making some efforts on climate change. The country now has a dedicated ministry for climate change lead by Senator Mushahidullah Khan.

In fact, Pakistan approved, but failed to implement, the first National Climate Change Policy in September 2012. How effective is the minister beyond issuing warnings of imminent environmental disasters is yet to be seen.

What the nation needs is preparedness against unforeseen and frequently occurring natural disasters whose devastating impact compounds because of an ill-prepared state and the society. Our shortcomings turn manageable natural disasters into unmanageable human disasters.

Also read: No lessons learnt in flood-hit Pakistan

The society in general and the electronic media, in particular, have a big role to play, especially when the State continues to falter on its responsibilities. The electronic media must include weather warnings in their routine programming to warn those who may want to act accordingly. Reporting on the dead afterwards is not as helpful as forewarnings.

At the same time, ordinary citizens should play a larger civic role in preparing the society for disasters. The Pakistan Weather Portal, an independent effort by Babar Hussain, was an excellent weather blog dedicated to developments in Pakistan. It is sad to see the blog is no longer active.

Babar and others like him in Pakistan should continue with their altruist efforts because the State seems unprepared to forewarn the citizens of natural and other hazards.

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