LAST year, districts of Sindh located on the right bank of the River Indus were badly hit by the floods.
This year’s disaster has struck the lower Sindh region in particular. Standing crops in these areas have been washed away and some districts in upper Sindh have been engulfed by nature’s fury.
The lower Sindh region is a significant contributor to Pakistan’s economy, producing high-quality cotton, rice, sugarcane and fresh produce. While the losses are still in the process of being assessed, there can be little doubt that the rural economy has been dealt a severe blow.
The losses to the country in general are also likely to run into billions of rupees given that this year the province was set to reap bumper cotton and sugarcane crops.
As far as disaster mitigation is concerned, the government apparatus has learnt nothing from last year’s floods. All structural issues remain unresolved, particularly at the district level, even though the comprehensive National Disaster Management Act 2010 has been enacted.
The government has managed to put in place Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMAs) but the next tier of disaster management, the District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs), has not yet been established in all of Sindh’s districts. Even in urban centres such as Karachi and Hyderabad, DDMAs can be held as existing in name alone. In districts that have been badly affected by the rains, including Tando Mohammad Khan, Mirpurkhas, Badin, Sanghar, Benazirabad, Umerkot and Tharparkar, they have not even been formed.
A November 2008 district risk management plan for every province can be found on the website of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which details the various aspects of disaster management such as preparedness, coordination and even simulation drills. But these guidelines, which could have helped mitigate the scale of the disaster, were not followed.
Last year, the Sindh PDMA was conspicuous by its absence and this year matters were no different. The parent organisation, the NDMA, exonerates the PDMA on account of its being a new organisation trying to learn from its mistakes. But when it does so at the cost of the poor, is that defensible?
The Sindh PDMA, which works under the provincial rehabilitation ministry, claimed early this year that a disaster risk management plan had been prepared after consultation with stakeholders. Yet when the rain started, no plan came into effect and no effective service delivery system on the part of the PDMA was in evidence.
One clear hurdle was underscored when NDMA chairman Dr Zafar Qadir conceded that in Sindh, the contingency plan could not be implemented because of the lack of financial allocations. The required funds were simply not earmarked by the Sindh finance department (Sindh allocated Rs140m as compared to Balochistan’s Rs3bn and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Rs2bn).
The rain-affected areas were being handled through the conventional routes with deputy district officers and mukhtiarkars handling rescue and relief activities. That raises the question of the duplication of efforts through authorities such as the relief commissioner and the Sindh PDMA hierarchy which have the same task but approach it differently.
In Punjab, the PDMA and the relief commissioner’s office have been merged and a disaster response force (DRF) created. The latter is an important body for handling situations such as flooding, earthquakes or any other sort of natural disaster. It has not been created in Sindh because of the lack of funding.
Disasters have different dimensions in various areas and mitigating or managing them requires funds as well as trained people and volunteers. The Sindh PDMA lacks both the financial and material means to do so.
According to the NDMA chairman, Sindh’s contingency plan was prepared but did not work on the ground because of a dearth of resources. Meanwhile, the district coordination officers of the rain-affected districts sought the NDMA’s intervention early in the season since they found handling such a massive problem beyond their capacity.
A former Sindh PDMA director general is on record as having said that the organisation did not recommend that the province’s governor should seek assistance from international relief agencies since it was capable of handling the disaster.
After the rains intensified in severity and inundated large swaths of land in lower Sindh, the president and prime minister had to make a global appeal for assistance.
By then, though, the damage had already been done. No transport was available to move the people from inundated villages to higher ground, and the relief camps appeared to be of little use.
Now survivors are living under the skies or in improvised tents, left to fend for themselves as relief goods do not reach everyone. The gigantic task at hand now is primary health cover for such a large, rain-hit population which is being stalked by the threat of malaria, dengue and dysentery.
Government agencies estimate that around 5.3 million people have been affected by the rains and 1.7 million acres of cultivated land has been submerged.
Global aid agencies have been alerted and are assessing the sectors where they may intervene. Meanwhile, homeless people go hungry and must fight amongst themselves over ration packets.
One can only hope that this year’s experience is enough to prompt the federal and provincial governments to seriously consider disaster-mitigation methodologies with reference to changing weather patterns.
Climatic conditions are being modified by climate change and we may expect heavy monsoon rains in the years to come. Adaptation is key to disaster-risk reduction.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Hyderabad.