Masters of disaster

01 Apr 2019


The writer is a poet and analyst.
The writer is a poet and analyst.

FARMING communities across Pakistan panicked at recent reports in dailies that the country faced the risk of a super flood this year. It transpired that the reports were based on a briefing to the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Water Resources by government officials. The Meteorological Department was quick to clarify that there was no scientific method to predict floods so far out in advance and that record snowfall in the northern parts of the country did not necessarily mean there would be floods.

Dig a little deeper into how and why this alarm was sounded and it becomes clear that it was aimed at driving home a point, a very pertinent one, that the country is not at all prepared for a major flood and that the funds allocated for flood preparedness were absolutely inadequate. Even if the possibility of floods due to rising temperatures and greater snowmelt combined with monsoon rains was somewhat overplayed, the intentions seemingly were noble. The method could have been more discreet though.

Super flood or not, is the country capable of handling a large-scale natural calamity or a man-made disaster? If the answer is in the negative, one must ask if we can afford such complacency after the 2005 earthquake. It has been almost a decade and half since the quake claimed 70,000 lives. Pockets of the affected population are yet to be fully rehabilitated. Schools, roads and other damaged infrastructure are still to be completely rebuilt.

It is mainly the LGs’ job to tackle disaster. But do they even exist?

Another call to come out of our comatose state came in the shape of 2010 floods. An area of almost 38,000 square kilometres remained submerged for weeks, impacting some 20 million people. Reconstruction of damaged infrastructure and livelihood relief alone were estimated to be $10 billion.

The National Disaster Management Authority and its provincial counterparts do exist. However, most people do not realise that their mandates hardly go beyond coordination and liaison between various government entities that are mobilised when disaster strikes. The major responsibility of disaster management lies with the local governments. Do they even exist in the country? Where some remnants of local government can be seen, are they up to the task in terms of technical expertise and capacity? How about resources, both financial and in terms of equipment?

Just imagine what would happen if a major fire were to break out in a city like Karachi or Lahore. Isolated fires in individual buildings result in loss of life because those whose responsibility it is to respond to such emergencies lack capacity and wherewithal, and a general lack of preparedness all around. When did you last witness, leave alone ­participate, in a fire drill in a government or private building? It may be the government’s job to ensure that construction designs meet safety standards like emergency exits, fire extinguishing apparatus etc, but it is our lives we are talking about here.

Why do the occupants of public or private office buildings and high-rise apartments need government departments to underline the importance of evacuation drills? Do they even know how many elderly or disabled persons on any given floor of a building or house would require assistance during evacuation? Are people trained to help them, or have volunteers been designated to ensure orderly evacuation? Have safe areas been identified for people to congregate after the evacuation?

No, governments don’t do this and it is not their responsibility to organise communities to take care of themselves. Go to the internet and download guidelines for doing most of this. Do not forget that our cities are densely populated and stampedes cannot be ruled out in emergencies.

There is, however, no getting away from the fact that the bulk of disaster management responsibility lies with various tiers of government. Particularly, the disaster prevention and mitigation part where advance planning, policymaking and its implementation are concerned. Every government parrots the donor advice that growth needs to be led by the private sector, but does precious little to encourage the insurance industry to introduce products tailored for traders and farmers. In case of a disaster, the rich should be recompensed by their insurers, while the government helps the less fortunate.

It is a shame that despite muddling through countless emergencies in the last seven decades, officialdom still cannot tackle something as basic as a damage-and-needs assessment which is nothing more than an audit of the scale and extent of losses and prioritisation of areas in need of relief and rehabilitation. Every time a calamity occurs, we go running to the donors requesting them to do the damage assessment because ‘we lack capacity’. In truth, we lack credibility. We ask the donors to assess the damage so that we can play the victim and ask for donations and loans.

The writer is a poet and analyst.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2019