With vulnerability to disasters extremely high, it's time for Pakistan to adopt a continuum approach

Needs of marginalised populations should be addressed at all times, pre-crisis, during crisis and post-crisis.
Published November 19, 2019

As the Super Cyclonic Storm Kyarr rapidly intensified in the Arabian Sea a few days ago, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) was quick to issue an advisory, stating that although Pakistan’s coastal areas were not under direct threat from it, scattered rains and strong winds were expected in lower Sindh.

The storm didn't warrant a 'red alert' but the seawater breached the coastline and moved into coastal settlements in Balochistan and Sindh, disrupting life. Parts of Karachi located on the coast also experienced minor flooding.

Courtesy: Facebook group: Weather Updates Karachi

Evidently, Karachi and its surrounding coastal areas are vulnerable to hydrological and geological hazards. It's not the city's close proximity to the sea that puts it in peril, it's this proximity coupled with the fact that the city lies very close to a major fault line where the Indian tectonic plate meets the Arabian tectonic plate. So if seismic activity isn't enough to jolt the city, a tsunami remains an alarming possibility that cannot be ignored.

The metropolis of 15 million people is therefore unable to effectively resist such a hazard or respond correctly in wake of a disaster.

Vulnerability in the face of disasters

The southern capital is not the only hotspot vulnerable to disasters and altogether unprepared to deal with them. The entire country is exposed to a variety of natural hazards, including floods, cyclones, storms, droughts, heatwaves, earthquakes, and landslides.

More importantly, with a considerable increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, Pakistan is included in the 10 most affected countries because of climate change.

Since the devastating earthquake in 2005, Pakistan has suffered over $18 billion in damages and losses from natural disasters. Evidently, the country's infrastructure to deal with such hazards is grossly inefficient and ineffective, and what's worse, there appears to be no clear interest from powerful quarters when it comes to disaster risk reduction.

Sadly, if a pro-active approach is not adopted soon, this inaction will further deepen Pakistan's vulnerability to disasters.

When we talk about managing disasters, we are referring to the capacity of a country, a group, or an individual’s ability to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural or a man-made hazard.

Vulnerabilities are however not only present but are intensified when people are destitute, isolated, insecure and defenceless in the face of risk, shock, and/or stress.

More on this: What causes urban flooding? Hint: It’s not just rain

Vulnerability may also vary in its manifestations. For example, it may mean that the quality of housing is unable to withstand a hazard, such as an earthquake, or the lack of preparedness. This lack of preparedness leads to a slower response to a hazard, leading to greater loss of life and destruction of property.

Some groups are at greater risk than others

Individuals and groups differ in their exposure to risk from a hazard, based on a number of factors, including — but not limited to — their social group, gender, ethnic, and other identities, such as age, disability and geographical location.

In Pakistan, women are much more vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to pre-assigned gendered roles and power relations and in the event of disasters, the vulnerability increases, exposing them to greater risk of violence, particularly gender-based violence (GBV).

Women in Balochistan learn safety measures that they can resort to in the event of disasters. — Photo courtesy: World Bank
Women in Balochistan learn safety measures that they can resort to in the event of disasters. — Photo courtesy: World Bank

For example, a young girl of 14 in Thatta who is deaf and is shifted to a camp in the event of a flood with her family members missing is much more vulnerable to trafficking and sexual violence as compared to an older, educated and able-bodied woman in an urban centre in case of flooding.

Explore: Climate change affects women more. What can the state do to intervene?

The communities are also aware of how the risk increases for females in such events. A 2015 report called Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action refers to a survey conducted in 2011 following the flash floods in Pakistan. Of the communities surveyed, 52% reported that the privacy and safety of women and girls was a key concern.

In a 2012 Protection Rapid Assessment with conflict-affected IDPs, interviewed communities reported that a number of women and girls were facing aggravated domestic violence and increased instances of forced marriages, early marriages, and exchange marriages, in addition to other cases of gender-based violence.

This information is important as it signals the need for policymakers and the executive that while policies are in place, we have yet to do something about their implementation to make sure all members of an affected community are secure and feel secure as well.

Who is responsible for disaster preparedness and management?

National Disaster Awareness Day celebrated on Oct 8, 2019. — Photo credit: Provincial Disaster Management Authority
National Disaster Awareness Day celebrated on Oct 8, 2019. — Photo credit: Provincial Disaster Management Authority

At present, the agencies that are responsible for disaster preparedness, relief and rehabilitation are the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), and the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) at the ground level.

The NDMA is mandated to develop policy guidelines and frameworks addressing preparedness, relief, rehabilitation, and recovery from disasters.

Disaster management structure. — Courtesy: NDMA
Disaster management structure. — Courtesy: NDMA

The PDMA is responsible for implementing policies and plans for disaster management in the respective province, capacity building of lines departments, and coordinating with the districts; and the DDMA headed by the Deputy Commissioner with the membership of select lines departments is responsible for developing and implementing district-level preparedness, plans and coordination.

Also read: Is Karachi ready to fight the next big heatwave?

When it comes to addressing the needs of high-risk groups during disasters, the NDMA has an excellent set of National Policy Guidelines developed by its Gender and Child Cell (GCC). The framework formulated in 2014 suggests the need to:

  • Mainstream gender in disaster preparedness, relief and rehabilitation.

  • Develop disaster preparedness plans in consultation with key stakeholders with special attention to vulnerable groups, including women, children, persons with disabilities, and the elderly.

  • The framework acknowledges that women and children are prone to experience physical and sexual violence due to their vulnerable position in our societies and the need for integrated referral systems as well as psycho-social support to address this.

  • The framework specifies the need to develop interventions that meet the needs of vulnerable groups and safeguard equitable access, benefits, and relief responses of these groups. Local examples of successful interventions include spaces friendly to women and children.

  • The framework also suggests working with existing social protection programmes like BISP (now EHSAS).

  • Developing information systems that are mindful of gender, sex, and type of disability; and capture key information for evidence-based decision making.

  • Strengthening institutions and capacity building

Disaster management stakeholders. — Courtesy: NDMA
Disaster management stakeholders. — Courtesy: NDMA

The NDMA also developed a Policy Guidelines Implementation Matrix to assist in the translation of the policy framework at the provincial level, clearly defining the involvement of key stakeholders, including the Department of Social Welfare, the Department for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (previously Special Education), the Department of Women Development, the departments of health, education, rehabilitation, planning and development, the Commission on Human Rights, the Home department, UN Agencies, and NGOs among others.

The GCC cell is also working on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the prevention and mitigation of gender-based violence in cases of disasters in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

A continuum approach: From immediate response to long-term recovery

A hazard such as a fire or a flood — even as a consequence of climate change — need not translate into a disaster if 'vulnerability' is low. It is therefore essential to take a continuum approach in both development and humanitarian settings.

This means that the needs of marginalised populations need to be addressed at all times, pre-crisis, during crisis and post-crisis in order to work around the four phases of the disaster continuum: preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. Calling it a continuum or a cycle is on account of the fact that it is continuous, and one phase may blend into the next without a clear beginning or end.

This is where the role of state institutions, as well as community mobilisation, becomes essential in building the resilience of communities to reduce levels of risk so that a hazard does not end up into becoming a full-blown disaster. Because once a hazard becomes active, it is no longer just a threat to life, health, environment or property; it becomes a disaster that completely disrupts a community's life.

Additionally, women can play an extremely important role in disaster management and risk reduction but in Pakistan, we continually witness limited experiences of participatory monitoring and evaluation (PM&E) in disaster rehabilitation.

This is a process of self-assessment, collective knowledge generation, and cooperative action, in which stakeholders in a programme or intervention collaboratively identify the monitoring and evaluation issues, collect and analyse data, and take action as a result of what they learn through the process.

Participatory monitoring and evaluation does not only create accountability and ownership but also acknowledges women as having knowledge and agency to collect data and do their own analyses based on the criteria set by them.

Challenges ahead

A number of international best practices have demonstrated that well-coordinated development and humanitarian assistance efforts may help to establish early warning systems in a pre-crisis phase, leading to a minimised risk and a more effective response during a crisis.

The challenge is in the implementation of these policy frameworks and standard operating procedures, but this is where interdepartmental coordination and ownership at the provincial and district level becomes essential.

The federal and provincial governments need to take serious note of the above-mentioned policy framework and encourage and support disaster management authorities in developing an integrated coordination mechanism in consultation with departments that have already expressed their willingness to partake in the process as well as bring on board others as need be.

Read further: In-depth: Sindh destroyed, one calamity at a time

Furthermore, the provincial disaster risk management plan and the district risk management plans need to be upgraded. This must be done in view of national policy guidelines for vulnerable groups with adequate resources and services allocated in consultation with the DDMAs to address the needs of marginalised populations in order to build preparedness and resilience.

Finally, the private sector can help in bringing innovative and environment-friendly solutions to the community, by mobilising them and facilitating interventions for addressing protection issues in the field, helping communities to organise and highlight the importance of the involvement of all members of communities, including women.

Responding to disasters requires coordination among all stakeholders so the needs of vulnerable groups can be effectively addressed and so prevention mechanisms, both in development and humanitarian settings, can be put in place.

Are you working on vulnerability and risk assessment in disaster management? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com