Climate change is a major threat to mankind, and Pakistan is among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to its effects. Some of the destruction caused due to global warming has become visible in the last few years in the form of severe heat waves (for example, Karachi in 2015) and heavy floods (2010 and 2022).
Mitigation and adaptation are the two parallel ways to address this issue globally. Given its high vulnerability to such disasters, Pakistan needs to take action to prepare for and become resilient to the destruction caused by these severe weather events, which are predicted to increase in intensity and frequency in the coming years.
Can mosques play a supporting role during such calamities by providing shelter and managing the urgent food, water and hygiene needs of its adjoining population? It is indeed possible to do so, provided a concerted effort is made to reorientate mosques to act as first responders during extreme climate events.
The ubiquitous nature of mosques in Pakistani society makes them an ideal resource for disaster management. According to the 2017 Census, there are over 100,000 mosques in the country. Nearly all of them are built on a self-help basis by the residents of the locality, and generous donations are made by the people both in building them and in their maintenance and upkeeping.
According to the 2017 Census, there are over 100,000 in the country, some of which can be repurposed as shelters in case of calamities
Usually, they have a covered area which is sufficient to provide standing room for residents of the locality during the Friday prayer congregation. Many of them have building structures with two levels and, in some cases, an additional level in the basement.
The first responders during large-scale catastrophes are usually government agencies and voluntary organisations that are spread throughout the country. However, it takes them substantial time to mobilise their workers to the disaster sites and, more importantly, to arrange food and other supplies for the disaster victims, while many of the victims may be dying.
On the other hand, mosques have the potential to provide the same service in a much shorter time as they are present in every locality of Pakistan. While mosques are viewed exclusively as places of worship, they have the potential to also serve as community centres in times of crisis through minimum alteration in their setups.
A large number of mosques have reliable water and gas supply arrangements, as well as adequate electricity and even solar panel installations. The country could leverage this existing infrastructure to help during climate-related and other calamities.
However, at a minimum, there would be a plan in place to look after the disaster-affected population within the neighbourhoods. Due to the well-knit fabric of the residents of our mohallahs and streets, it can be expected that a spirit of love and cooperation will greatly ease the burden by providing mutual comfort to one another.
There are several ways in which mosques can be repurposed as emergency response centres. For new ones that are yet to be built, the federal or provincial government must first develop climate-resilient designs and building regulations that consider the community’s emergency needs.
Some of the design provisions to be considered are: mosques should be built on a raised platform to give protection in case of floods. In addition, the building structure should be robust enough to withstand high-intensity earthquakes. And an energy-efficient interior cooling system should be installed, which can reduce the impact of debilitating heat waves.
For the pre-existing mosques, a database may be developed to identify those that have the capacity and adequacy to serve as emergency centres. It is highly likely that only about 10 per cent of the masajid will qualify to take on a revised, community-based role. However, if 10,000 buildings can be retrofitted to provide shelter to affected populations, it is still a considerable number. They could become centres that save precious human lives by urgently providing supplies and first-aid to the affected populations.
A reorientation programme would need to be devised and implemented to familiarise the management committees of mosques with the desired features of such centres and how they can support the nearby community during times of crisis. To do this, it would be necessary that mosques partner with philanthropic organisations that have experience in providing post-disaster support to communities.
These organisations are well-versed in laying down emergency plans and procedures and mobilising the resources that can be activated quickly in case of a calamity. By partnering with philanthropic organisations, it is possible that in a matter of a couple of years, the management of the mosque would gain enough knowledge to be in a position to take on the role of first responders without any external help.
A typical Pakistani masjid is opened five times a day for about one hour each, adding up to five hours in the entire 24-hour day and for the remaining duration, it remains closed to the public. Despite the available facility, it is odd that in the event of natural disasters, the public rarely sees the mosque as the first place for taking refuge or where they can receive provisions such as food, water and basic medicines.
The writer can be reached at
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 20th, 2023
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