WHAT happens when other disasters hit during a pandemic? Various parts of the country are already experiencing early monsoon rains. Rain and thunderstorms are expected across Sindh, northern Punjab, KP, Islamabad, AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan. The Met department has alerted local authorities to beef up preparedness for urban floods in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi-Islamabad and other cities. The disaster management authorities now face the dilemma of managing flood disasters in the midst of a pandemic.
Last month, the Met department issued a seasonal forecast of above average rainfall during the monsoon season. As much as a 20 per cent increase in rainfall was forecast for Sindh and the Kashmir region for the July to September period. The forecast indicates a higher probability of large-scale flooding in the country.
The frequency and intensity of hazards that develop into disasters has drastically increased over the years. This is the result of a rapidly growing population, urbanisation, climate change and poverty.
In 2010, floods ravaged the valleys of Swat and Nowshera causing death and destruction and resulting in 1,156 casualties in KP alone. As the flood wave slowed in the Indus floodplains of Punjab and Sindh, numerous breaches occurred as embankments succumbed to the might of the waters. A breach at Tori inundated thousands of villages, leaving 411 people dead and 7.2 million badly affected. In all, the 2010 floods cost the country an estimated $10 billion in direct losses.
The authorities will have to rethink their strategies.
Subsequent years (2011-15) provided little reprieve and further exposed the vulnerability of communities and the economy to flooding events. Heavy rains battered the plains of Sindh in 2011, killing hundreds and rendering millions homeless. The year 2014 brought heavy downpours across Kashmir and Punjab. The untamed Chenab inundated thousands of villages in Punjab, killing hundreds. The direct economic losses of the floods since 2010 are more than $19bn, outweighing the combined losses of all past floods since 1947.
Pakistan’s flood management policy has centred on structural interventions to mitigate floods through construction of embankments, and river training structures. Non-structural interventions have made rudimentary progress in early warning systems, which have been riddled with integration, adoption and forecast reliability issues.
The Federal Flood Commission was established to coordinate flood management at a national level. It provides technical and financial support to the provincial irrigation departments. Meanwhile, the NDMA and PDMAs, mandated to “manage the whole Disaster Management Cycle”, have relegated themselves only to the response and relief phase in the case of floods. The disaster management authorities, along with Rescue 1122, the armed forces and district administration provide search and rescue, evacuations and relief. It is no wonder that flood management, which requires clear decision-making on mitigation, preparedness, early warning, communication and response, finds itself lost between different organisations of the centre and provinces.
It is now, during the pandemic, that this ‘annual surprise’ presents its deadliest twist. In case flooding is of an intensity that requires large-scale evacuations from villages, thousands of vulnerable people including the elderly, will be forced to live in closely packed relief shelters.
Relief shelters and camps, usually set up in nearby schools, would need to be expanded to ensure social distancing. Sanitation and hygiene facilities, including provision of masks, soaps and hand sanitisers at such camps would have to be ensured to prevent infection transmission. Similarly, the provision of medical facilities, healthcare supplies for the displaced, and PPE for the camp management would need to be ensured.
Globally, authorities are rethinking disaster evacuation and shelter plans in the face of simultaneous disasters in their respective regions. There are many lessons to learn from Asian countries. During the recent torrential rains and floods in the south-western Kumamoto prefecture in Japan, elderly citizens have shown reluctance in evacuating due to fears of Covid-19 exposure, preferring instead to shelter at home. The authorities prepared cardboard separation walls at evacuation shelters to maintain social distancing, and prevent the unmitigated spread of the coronavirus at temporary shelters.
In another example closer to home, Bangladesh authorities expanded the capacity of their shelters before Super Cyclone Amphan made landfall in May. The authorities scrambled to manufacture and distribute masks and hand sanitisers to the millions of evacuees, volunteers and officials. The management of Cyclone Amphan in Bangladesh has largely been hailed as a success, based on the low death toll during the super cyclone event.
The writer is a director at the Centre for Disaster Management, and teaches disaster management at the University of Management and Technology.
Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2020