Poor disaster management

Published April 23, 2012

THE recent avalanche in Siachen that buried 138 Pakistani soldiers and civilians in a mass of icy rubble once again highlighted the devastation which can be wrought by natural calamities, and why it is imperative to be adequately prepared for them.

Pakistan is exposed to multiple forms of natural and manmade disasters. Natural disasters range from earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones, landslides, and sea-based hazards. A relief and response model for coping with disasters has been the basis of our reactive response to disasters.

Floods have been prevalent, and in the 1960s a flood control programme was launched which made its way to the Fourth Five-Year Plan. The national disaster plan in 1974 by the Federal Emergency Relief Cell was the first plan which envisaged procedures, organisational structures, responding agencies and procedures for monitoring relief operations. Unfortunately, the plan never materialised beyond the paper on which it was written.

Another effort which went the same way was the Pakistan Emergency Service Ordinance and the Pakistan Emergency and Fire Code in 2002, in the aftermath of a fire in the 17-storey Shaheed-i-Millat Secretariat in Islamabad. The ordinance mandated a new federal Pakistan emergency and fire council and a rescue and fire service, neither of which materialised.

A devastating earthquake struck in the north in October 2005 which exposed the vulnerability of the existing emergency and disaster-response apparatus. The creation of the National Disaster Management Commission and its executive organ the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) ostensibly ushered in an across-the-board transformation of the national perspective on the issue.

A planned reorientation of all stakeholders heralded the much-needed evolution of legal frameworks, administrative arrangements, organisational structures and financial outlays to achieve desired disaster-risk management goals. The NDMA formulated a national disaster response policy as an integral component after extensive cross-sector consultations.

The National Disaster Response Plan (NDRP) seeks to upgrade the country’s ability to cope with all conceivable disasters.

The national strategy for disaster management in Pakistan classifies small, medium and large-scale natural and manmade disasters in the country and corresponding response mechanisms and procedures. It also illustrates structures and mechanisms for providing operational direction to disaster management authorities at the federal, provincial and district levels.

Emergencies at the local, provincial and national levels are clearly defined, along with the process of declaring each level of emergency and response mechanisms and procedures accordingly.

The roles/responsibilities of and coordination amongst the federal ministries, NGOs, provincial bodies, the news media etc are all explained in this document, which also describes the standard operating procedures for each relief function in case of a disaster and further defines the role of concerned government departments as lead and support agencies. The NDRP is supposed to express a consistent approach for reporting disasters, providing assessments and making recommendations to the prime minister and the chief ministers for relief operations.

As regards legislation and pre-existing structures, the West Pakistan National Calamities (Prevention and Relief) Act 1958 provides for the maintenance and restoration of order in areas affected by calamities, and relief against such calamities. The Calamities Act 1958 is mainly focused on organising emergency response.

In Punjab, a dedicated department, the Relief and Crisis Management Department, was also established in 1975, but with no clear mandate on how to operate within the parameters of the act. An emergency relief cell was created within the cabinet division in 1971 and is responsible for disaster relief at the national level. It provides assistance in cash and kind to supplement the resources of the provincial governments in the event of a major disaster.

Additionally, its mandate is to extend a helping hand to calamity-stricken, friendly countries as and when required. It is also supposed to coordinate the activities of all the related agencies i.e. federal divisions, provincial governments, semi-governmental, international and national aid-giving agencies during relief operations. The need for institutional and policy arrangements was ostensibly fulfilled by the promulgation of the National Disaster Management Ordinance 2007 in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Pakistan.

The NDMA is supposed to serve as the focal point and coordinating body to facilitate implementation of disaster management. The Disaster Management Authorities (DMAs) are meant to directly coordinate with all stakeholders, including ministries, divisions, departments and humanitarian organisations at respective levels for emergency response in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority is the provincial implementing body responsible for coordinating with ministries, departments and the District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) for disaster-risk management activities in the provinces and also responsible for implementing policies and plans for emergency response in the provinces. The DDMA have been established in all the districts/ agencies with priority given to hazard-prone areas.

Thus, there is the existence of several departments that have roughly the same mandates with no clear demarcations as to what they are specifically supposed to do in case of a crisis. Clearly laid down procedures as to what is the sphere of their respective operations in what crisis are missing from their job descriptions. As can be seen above, there is repetition of responsibilities with the provincial and district DMAs as well.

In real time, it’s not these authorities that are there to control the crisis; rather it’s the Pakistan Army which is called in almost every time in such situations and has performed commendably during many natural calamities in the country. Even though there is legislation available for other entities, there are no resources to back it up.

This was clearly manifested during the recent floods in 2010 when there were communication gaps, coordination issues and varying perceptions and priorities between federal, provincial and district authorities handling the flood emergency. They were even unable to decide on the judicious allocation of relief goods to various areas according to their needs. International donors provide generous support to Pakistan during each calamity but no coordination of distribution of such aid is observable between foreign donors and the DMAs in Pakistan.

The writer is a security analyst.

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