Heatwave disaster

16 Jul 2015

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The writer is a public health physician, and author of So Much Aid,So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan.
The writer is a public health physician, and author of So Much Aid,So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan.

IN Pakistan, the death of ordinary citizens has become a spectator sport. Man-made and natural disasters are a constant of daily life. Children are killed in schools, people are pulled out of buses and shot in broad daylight, vaccinators are murdered while on government duty, floods kill thousands. Lining up to await the corpses, the more fortunate watch with pity.

Such was the case in the last weeks of June, when over 1,000 people died because of the weather and its related complication — heatstroke — in Sindh, mostly in Karachi. As weather can be predicted in advance, in any other civilised city they would not have been in much danger because authorities would have made preparations. Relief centres — planned, equipped and coordinated by departments of health and manned by reliable emergency responders — would be set up to minimise unnecessary load on hospital emergency rooms. Other government agencies and private-sector providers would be organised by competent government authorities to help.

Citizens would have had the information about what was likely to happen and what to do about it through local communication channels. Proper preparation can prevent heatstroke and prompt care can revive the sick without the need for sophisticated technology or expensive medicines. But none of that happened in Karachi, a megalopolis of 20 million with its fancy malls, world-class universities and hospitals and Western-trained experts and a city government led by a chief minister who travels throughout the province via helicopter at citizens’ expense. It has a city administration, ministries of health and social welfare and of course the grand master of all — the Disaster Management Agency specially set up to prepare for and manage disasters. Where were they all?


No one seems to be minding the store.


Nowhere to be seen during the crisis, emerging after the heat subsided, to make hospital rounds and make cheesy pronouncements. The provincial government, in a last-ditch effort, directed shops, marriage halls and restaurants to close early and announced a one-day government holiday and a protest against K-Electric. The game has become more routine than cricket, more predictable than an election.

How does this continue to happen? Circumstances in Pakistan are not normal. No one seems to be minding the store. No one is responsible — what is more interesting, no one can be held responsible. It is a fantastic situation so fantastic solutions are proposed. Instead of ordinary steps that any administration anywhere should follow, this one reaches for the clouds.

Here is how it is played. First, always, comes the blame game. The province blamed the centre, the centre blamed the province, until the chief minister and Bilawal Bhutto took tours of the hospitals to see the faces of the sick after which they were “quite convinced” that the provincial government had nothing to do with the crisis. The minister for states and frontier regions General Abdul Qadir Baloch even managed a ‘touching’ remark: the problem came this time “dabay paaon”, stealthily. No one is to blame, it seems, for there can be no responsibility when calamity comes stealthily; if only it had stomped harder, or rung a bell to announce its arrival.

India, of course, came in for a drubbing: the foreign hand is always there when you need it. According to Senator Mushahidullah Khan, the minister for climate change, coal-powered plants in Rajasthan were to blame for the deadly heatwave. Where will they direct their hot air, if not towards Pakistan? It’s this “trans-boundary pollution” that was the culprit and needed to be “investigated”.

The utilities cannot escape a share of the responsibility; both centre and province are pointing a finger in K-Electric’s direction. Perhaps this is why no one has taken any interest in improving and reforming the power situation in Pakistan, not just in Karachi. It makes kind of sense to keep a system failing and flailing for years and decades, so that in the event of an emergency you have someone to blame. There is no real need to fix this system, in any case: as was suggested, we might consider seeding the clouds instead.

Who else to blame? The weather, for being more extreme than we are used to, perhaps. Ultimately, it makes the most sense to blame the victims themselves, for being poor and homeless; so young or so old, so weak or so frail, so foolish, so failed, so desperate, that they could not survive. Many of those who died were outdoor manual labourers, paid by the day and who may not want to stop work as it would mean losing a day’s income.

What is conveniently overlooked is that the authorities responsible — the city administration, the provincial ministry of health and the disaster management agency are sleeping at their posts. This is exactly what the leadership wants, and most people don’t care.

The writer is a public health physician, and author of So Much Aid,So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2015

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