Are we ready?

Updated 11 Aug 2020

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TEN years ago, Pakistan suffered some of the worst floods in its history. Intense monsoon rains caused the Indus River and its tributaries to burst their banks, submerging one-fifth of the country from the north to the Arabian Sea, and devastating the lives of 20 million people.

The loss was immense. Almost 2,000 people perished, and 1.6m homes were des­troyed. Some 2m hectares of rice, cotton, wheat, and other crops were washed away, along with 40 per cent of the country’s farm livestock.

Also read: Recalling the horror of 2010 Swat floods

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) moved swiftly, against challenging conditions. Floodwaters cut off roads, power and telecommunications, making movement risky and often dangerous. National and provincial governments, as well as the military, donors and the humanitarian community were mobilised and able to act.

UN agencies — among them OCHA, WFP, Unicef, and FAO — undertook a rapid needs assessment with NDMA within days of the disaster. Soon after, with the help of the international community and NGOs, a massive relief effort was mobilised with distributions of food, shelter and life-saving medical, water and sanitation services reaching thousands of affected communities.

Those who suffered most were among the poorest members of society. Livelihoods were destroyed, and hunger loomed.

What have we learned from the 2010 flood response?

A decade on, Pakistan is faced with another unforgiving monsoon season. However, in 2020 the risks to potentially affected communities will be complicated by the impact of Covid-19 as well as by locust swarms already affecting areas in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan. A further threat is the potential of glacial lake outburst floods from the north caused by rising average temperatures.

The question on every mind is: ‘what will happen should this year’s monsoon be a repeat of 2010?’

Unlike 2010, foreign aid will be in short supply. With the pandemic still progressing in many parts of the world, travel restrictions mean getting aid to where it is needed will take longer and with more logistical hurdles to overcome. Movement of humanitarian responders is already problematic and restricting support to communities in many countries including Pakistan.

Read: Pakistan’s new plan to embrace floods

The outlook is not entirely bleak. Much was learned from the experience of Pakistan’s floods of 2010, and not only in terms of humanitarian response. The government has absorbed the importance of preparedness, of the value of capacity building at provincial and district levels, and the need to reduce the risk to vulnerable communities before disasters strike.

Much has been achieved to integrate longer-term strategies to improve nutrition, adapt to climate change, and improve food security, community resilience, and agricultural practices.

The mechanics of aid have changed too. Ten years ago, the government of Pakistan and Nadra introduced the Watan Card — cash assistance to families hit hard by the floods, providing each with Rs20,000 (approximately $213) to help them survive. Further tranches were later provided with donor support to help them recover.

At that time, many stakeholders were sceptical about using cash as an aid instead of commodities. Over the years, this attitude has shifted. Provision of cash provides families with options to address multiple urgent needs in addition to food. With the growing use of biometrics and electronic banking, cash transfers are faster, cheaper, with fewer risks and help to increase financial inclusion.

The government of Pakistan’s Ehsaas Emergency Cash programme is clear evidence of this learning — it has provided cash assistance to 15 million families affected by Covid-19.

Furthermore, since 2010, Pakistan has also invested wisely in building technical capa­­city across all key disciplines. Commu­nities’ needs in terms of food, water, shelter, health and livelihood can be met more effectively in times of crisis.

Preparedness is key. To this end, NDMA has worked tirelessly with provincial teams to put in place comprehensive monsoon plans which ensure the participation of government, military, UN agencies, and the humanitarian community.

Much has also been invested since 2010 to build capacity across all disciplines to respond to food, shelter, health and livelihood needs. The establishment of standby capacities — both national and international — provides the assurance that government has the requisite capacity to scale up and be further supported on an as-needed basis with the support of UN agencies, NGOs, and civil society.

With this year’s monsoon rains having already devastated parts of Nepal, India and Bangladesh, there is growing concern that Pakistan may be similarly affected. A repeat of the 2010 floods, or flooding of any similar dimensions, is a possibility that cannot be ignored.

Over the coming weeks, a decade of investments and preparations are likely to be put to the test — and we are as ready as we can be.

The writer is representative and country director in Pakistan of the UN World Food Programme.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2020