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Facing the challenge

September 24, 2011

An areail view shows the a flooded area of Sanghar on September 23, 2011.Two million Pakistanis have fallen ill from diseases since monsoon rains left the southern region under several feet of water, NDMA said. – AFP Photo

Loss of precious human lives and livestock and destruction of standing crops and properties because of the flood for the second year in a row have exposed our disaster management systems.

Soon after the worst ever deluge of 2010, global environmental agencies had warned that floods would keep revisiting Pakistan. Ideally, we should have been better prepared during this monsoon. The National Disaster Management Authority which is still in infancy with its newborn provincial offshoots can be blamed only partly for all the chaos we are in again. Lack of political will and administrative focus and paucity of funds are equally responsible.

Enhanced fiscal devolution towards provinces provided a cover to the federal authorities who could have mustered nationwide political support on just one thing: what will we do if floods hit again? Sadly, they did not. The Sindh government almost lost much of its administrative grip even over day-to-day business—and watched with helplessness the killings and kidnappings in Karachi.

It too could have better equipped provincial disaster management mechanisms and encouraged political forces and media to prepare their ranks for facing the monsoon miseries and floods. The provincial government and its political allies did nothing of the sort. And media too remain fixated on what it considered urgent instead of building upon whatever expertise it had gained during a very extensive coverage of 2010 floods—for educating people on what to do in next monsoon.

Chairman, NDMA, Mr Zafar Qadir, admitted during a TV talk show that he did not know about the blockage of 13 escape routes or special spillways built by the British in Sindh to facilitate the flow of flood waters into the Arabian Sea. Their blockage over decades is a basic reason for inundation of populated and cropped areas. One hopes that these spillways are reopened to minimise the devastation caused through a deluge in the future.

Officials of the NDMA say they were not totally taken off guard by the recent floods. After last year’s floods they had created a Strategic Planning Unit and Logistic Cell within the NDMA to enhance their response capacity. They claim they have better coped with the challenges of relief and recovery operations during the current floods than in the last year—thanks to these specialised groups.

The Strategic Planning Unit is raised during a disaster to provide input on how to deal with it most effectively and its Logistic Cell acts as the sole corridor for receiving and dispatching humanitarian aid and keeping a record of inventories.

The NDMA should be credited for its relief and rescue operations in 2010 floods when it was only four years old and for its capacity enhancement immediately afterwards. The creation of provincial and district disaster management authorities (DDMA) is just one big step taken in the right direction. These newborn agencies at least have crawled to the scenes of the disaster during the current floods, even if they could not run and rush to help.

Another milestone that the NDMA has achieved after last year’s floods is the installation of Pakistan’s first ever Tsunami Early Warning System at Gwadar in collaboration with the UNDP. With the help of Pakistan Metrological Department the system has been tested and activated.

The Provincial Disaster Management Authority of Sindh is clearly struggling to come up to the expectation of some six million flood-affected people and understandably so. It is just a year old and is short of the resources that are required to discharge its duties. Nevertheless, its efforts are showing through whatever little has been done so far for the victims of the floods.

Had the provincial government held district government elections on time and had the elected representatives of district governments been in their place perhaps people affected by the floods would have got some relief much earlier and in better ways. For example, hundreds of thousands of pregnant women who went through unimaginable difficulties during the floods could have been provided duly prioritised relief through joint efforts of the DDMA and lady councillors in the affected union councils.

After the 2010 floods, the federal and provincial governments made some serious attempts for immediate recovery of the agriculture sector and these efforts bore fruit. Our cotton crop turned out to be much less short than initially feared and wheat was sown over 9.2 million hectares against the targeted nine million hectares.

The damage done to the crops and livestock during the current deluge is smaller in magnitude but early recovery of agriculture sector would be a bit more difficult for the simple reason that financial resources would not be available from the centre because of the devolution of agriculture sector to the province. The provinces are now going to get sales tax on services sector and this should supposedly enhance their resourcefulness. But because this financial year is the first year of this exercise, volumes of provincial tax collection may not reach the desired levels.

Housing and infrastructure sectors require far greater resources for reconstruction. According to the PDMA, Sindh, half a million housing units have been completely destroyed by the current floods. Disaster management authorities can only act as a platform to channelise foreign and domestic aids and assistance and sharing of technical expertise of other countries in this regard.

The actual cost of reconstruction of housing units and infrastructure would be far higher than what national or international donors are expected to come up with. So, the role of the provincial government and the private sector would be crucial. Low-cost housing schemes could be launched with the help of banks and housing finance companies and infrastructure could be rebuilt on public-private partnerships.

Countries such as US, UK, China, Australia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Malaysia which had participated in the post-flood 2010 reconstruction will have to be kept in the loop. But instead of expecting direct financial help from them Pakistani authorities and entrepreneurs will have to present comprehensive plans with specific requirements of foreign investment along with mutually acceptable economic rationale.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi