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How can one help?

August 29, 2010

THE National Disaster Management Authority and its provincial/local subsidiaries have justifiably come under fire for the woefully inadequate responses to the floods and the ensuing tragedy. Formed by an ordinance in the aftermath of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, no serious input and resources were made available to the Authority — it was and is a toothless tiger.

As we in Pakistan are unable to deal with what passes for normal lives in any coherent and organised manner (with a negation of law and order and permanent chaos on all fronts), how can we be expected to rise up to deal with overwhelmingly complex and 'extraordinary' circumstances. This is essentially a fatalistic nation, submitting humbly to ' Allah ki marzi ', incapable of realising that people can actually be in control of their own destiny.

Establishing a disaster management system is akin to taking out an insurance policy against incidents that may never happen — and this nation with its scarce resources and grasping leaderships cannot afford insurance premiums.

But then, even the mighty US stumbled while tackling the unexpected: the slow and confused reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the consequences. Violence erupted in pockets in New Orleans, sanitation deteriorated in survivor camps, and events exposed a broader social, political and economic system that does not work for the poor. President Bush's statement that the military is the “institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations” was sad and unsettling for the affected citizens.

A blog written in 2005 ascribed the failure of the handling of Katrina to the lack of good governance: “Good governance is a catch-all phrase used by scholars of comparative politics. They define it differently, but in its most succinct form, the idea has four parts.

First, and most importantly, good governance means responding to the needs of your citizenry. That may seem painfully obvious, but the world is full of leaders who don't get it — or don't care to. Democracy is just as important — in it is embedded the all-important principle of self-government. Good governance also rests on the rule of law and a healthy respect for judicial independence. The final pillar is transparency — it's inconceivable that we could govern ourselves well without keeping tabs on what our representatives are cooking up in our name.”

How aptly this applies to this unsettled country.

My friend and advisor on matters environmental, Engineer Roland deSouza, spent five days in Sukkur and Shikarpur last week with the Edhi ambulance team, trying to understand what was going on. Herewith an encapsulation of his findings and comments.

The situation is overpowering. Hundreds of camps, each with some 100-150 families (600-1,500 persons) have been set up by the government in and around small towns and cities in upper Sindh to care for the displaced from the affected districts, including Jacobabad, Kashmore, Shikarpur and so forth.

The state of camps established in schools, colleges and other concrete buildings is particularly pathetic as the environmental conditions are grossly unsanitary and unhealthy. Garbage strewn around Sukkur generates flies by the millions, sitting on the faces of babies as shown on the TV channels. The absence of adequate washing and sanitary facilities results in the proliferation of human faeces and water pooling within building compounds — a surefire prescription for flies, mosquitoes and water-borne diseases.

Camps established with tents (of which there is a shortage) in open areas around towns fare slightly better as occupants are able to use the surrounding fields to relieve themselves. The drainage of water away from the camp still needs to be implemented. Moving affectees from buildings to tent-camps should improve matters.

Most camps are managed by government servants, teachers and the like. In the confusion and chaos, registration/listing of inhabitants is questionable. One NGO, who took over a Shikarpur school camp, counted 160 families where the teachers had listed 240.

Food is being supplied by the government and NGOs, local and foreign. Area PPP workers go along with the government food-delivery teams in order to gain political capital for the next elections. Rice is served in many places, but is not to the liking of people who are used to roti .

Health issues have the potential of developing into major hazards: mosquitoes, lack of bed-nets and thus malaria; exacerbation of previous malnutrition in young children; prolific diarrhoea/dysentery deteriorating into a cholera epidemic; skin infections mushrooming through contact.

The UN agencies (WFP, Unicef, WHO) are organising government authorities and NGOs into 'clusters' for relief action (nutrition, shelter, health, water/sanitation, etc) and will provide material resources, such as food, medicines and equipment. The WHO team in Sukkur is looking for well-established health NGOs to set up and man (24/7) diarrhoea treatment centres in affected districts to contain a cholera outbreak.Many persons of goodwill are trying to identify the most effective way to help. Roland suggests making cash donations to credible humanitarian organisations (for instance, Karachi Relief Trust, HANDS, SIUT). Contributions in cash allow aid experts, who are familiar with the problems and methodologies involved, to procure the exact items required near the site of distribution, thus reducing the necessity and costs of transportation/warehousing.

Relief goods reach faster and the economy of the affected district is stimulated. Additionally, aid can be tailored to the environment, culture, diet and actual needs of the recipients.

If those who wish to do good seek sincere hands-on involvement, they can volunteer to participate in the management of the camps or medical centres or engineering construction through credible humanitarian organisations such as those mentioned above.

We have to wake up and remain awake.

arfc@cyber.net.pk