Disastrous Response – by Imran Khan

First published in The News
Global warming is causing increasing alarm because the rising global temperatures have the power to alter monsoon rain patterns. The recent floods that engulfed northern Pakistan have, in a way, not just affirmed the threat of weather aberration, but also spelled out its consequences. According to UNICEF, around three million people have been affected just in northern Pakistan, with 1,400 dead.

After the devastating earthquake of 2005, the National Disaster Management Committee (NDMC) was formed to deal with such situations. The NDMC is headed by the prime minister and it implements its decisions through the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) which is responsible for coordination between different stakeholders, including the ministry of defence and the provincial governments.

The recent floods were one of the first major tests for the NDMA. The intensity of the floods and the shortage of resources can be cited as valid reasons for the less-than-adequate response to the disaster, but the NDMA was also unable to fully utilise even those resources that were available.

For instance, consider the efforts undertaken to rescue marooned survivors. These survivors were stranded on structures such as buildings or electricity poles. Timing is critical in such situations as these structures are likely to give way due to damage to their foundations and bases. Helicopters provide the quickest means of rescue in such instances.

But as stated in the NDMA’s flood update of July 30, only 21 helicopters were deployed in the affected areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. As seen in media reports from the areas, this number was clearly inadequate given the scale and spread of the calamity. This weakness remains as the efforts move into the next phase: upper Swat and Kohistan are cut off from the rest of the country because of the total destruction of their road infrastructure.

More than 350,000 people need supplies for mere survival, and helicopters remain the only viable way of making these deliveries. But the Aug 1 update from the NDMA states that only 30 helicopters were engaged in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, of which 20 belonged to army.

This small number of helicopters would have been acceptable if these were all the helicopters that could be spared. But statistics from www.pakistanaviation.com show that in 2006 the army had 143 helicopters, of which at least 100 are of the sort that can be used for these operations. If the only helicopter at the disposal of the Punjab government can make the rounds at this hour of need, then surely the army could have spared more than just 20 helicopters. There can be no valid excuse for this underutilisation, especially when the cost of it is measured in terms of human lives.

There also is a relative sense of apathy among unaffected Pakistanis when it comes to donations for relief efforts. This is in sharp contrast to the outpouring of sympathy after the 2005 earthquake. In my opinion, a major catalyst in that united and concerted effort resulted from the focused and dedicated reporting from our electronic media then. Televised stories of survival and tragedy mobilised the whole nation into action; the urgent needs of the affected areas became breaking news, and the actions of volunteers across the country were assisted by information from TV news channels.

It was shocking that none of the mainstream Urdu news channels interrupted their regular programming to cover the initial phase of the floods disaster. This lack of focus came right after the non-stop coverage of the Airblue plane crash, an event that is dwarfed in magnitude by the calamity brought about by these floods. Some quarters say that alerts from the Pakistan Meteorological Department were not given due coverage by the media because of the extensive focus on the plane crash.

It also wasn’t that the other competing news items were of equal significance. For instance, on Aug 31, when the director general of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was holding a press conference, none of the mainstream Urdu news channels chose to broadcast it live. Instead, there were talk shows lamenting the president’s upcoming visit to the UK and–believe it or not–comedy shows on two channels. Similarly, when the chief minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa addressed his first post-disaster press conference, only one main channel broadcast it live. The sole exception in the initial phase of the flooding was a Pashto news channel, many of whose online callers lamented the apathy displayed by the Urdu media.

The role of the government was also very weak, the main alibi being that officials weren’t prepared for the magnitude of this flood. Even if we acknowledge that the intensity of the floods caught the government off guard, the post-realisation reaction left a lot to be desired. For instance, while the prime minister declared a day of mourning because of the plane crash, a similar acknowledgement was not given to the inundation of whole cities and towns. Similarly, the decision of the president not to cancel his trip to Europe stands in sharp contrast to the post-earthquake involvement of Gen Pervez Musharraf. Furthermore, leadership was desperately required in the ensuing chaos in the affected areas, but most elected officials from those areas were absent from their constituencies.

Lack of preparation was not only relative to the intensity of the floods. As the Annual Report of the NDMA for 2009 suggests, the agency that is responsible for the coordination of our response to disasters was given very low priority in financial allocations and disbursements. The NDMA apparently had to rely a lot on donor money in meeting the requirements of the Risk Management Framework. There are also instances where the NDMA was not disbursed funds that were approved by the prime minister and the NDMC.

Global warming is a phenomenon that will probably last the lifetime of most of us living today. This means that consequent disasters such as this one are very likely to occur again, and in the near future. Our response to the floods shows that we are unprepared for such calamities. The destruction caused by these disasters is much more than the dreaded bombing campaigns from our neighbouring countries. If we can dedicate Rs342 billion of our budget for protection against those threats, then we cannot leave the defence against these natural threats to the mercy of international donors.

6 responses to “Disastrous Response – by Imran Khan”

  1. Failure of huge proportions – by Husham Ahmed

    As the country is waking up to one of the most devastating floods of its history the response of the rescue and relief agencies has been slow to say the least. Death toll has crossed the 1000 figure and the number is still rising. According to UN, almost a million people have been affected. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the province already facing the brunt of war against militancy and terrorism, has suffered the most from these floods. Areas as far as the tribal agencies in the west have been inundated and with the poor structure of governance prevailing there the rescue and relief efforts are facing countless challenges. The communication network of Swat is in ruins. Many areas of Gilgit-Baltistan have been cut off from the rest of the country. Accurate damage assessment will take weeks, if not days, to come through.

    The magnanimity of the disaster has not yet been able to merit the same response as it deserved. The government was again slow to respond and the media was busy in giving time to other frivolous activities. Apparently, the floods in Balochistan, which had killed 80 in one week and affected over 60,000 people, went unnoticed as well as the media pundits were busy analysing the various conspiracy theories behind the Margalla plane crash. It reaffirmed that the class to which people belong and the place where deaths occur do matter when the air time to be given is decided for any tragedy.

    The government was caught unprepared. Meteorological department failed to forecast the disaster. Early flood warning systems, the few which we have, proved ineffective. Gilani has already sought an explanation from DG Met. But will it be enough to ensure that the same lapse does not happen in the future? Hardly so. It is true that Met has come a long way under the leadership of Qamar Zaman Chaudhry but it still needs an updating of its early warning systems especially as far as communities in the north and north-west are concerned.

    National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), established after the October 2005 earthquake, is still grappling with host of administrative issues. As late as in March 2010, the chairman NDMA Lt-Gen (retd) Farooq Ahmad Khan was complaining that emergency relief work and helicopters came under the administrative control of the cabinet division and the control was yet to be transferred to NDMA. District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) remain weak and poorly resourced. Furthermore, the information rallying capacity of NDMA leaves much to be desired for. The only information their website offers is number of casualties in each province along with the minimal estimate of damage to property. Any vibrant system of live flood damage updates is conspicuously absent, or at least the information never timely travels bottom down to the masses.

    Where scarcely resourced rescue and relief work of agencies has highlighted the weaknesses in governance, it has also presented another alarming danger to the society. Remember, we are talking here about a province which has already been affected by militancy and extremism owing to the space provided by poor governance. The void created by absence of institutions in ungoverned areas has led to breeding of many rogue elements in the past in the shape of Mangal Bagh and Fazlullah. After the October 2005 earthquake, when the government institutions failed to provide relief, it was Jamat ud dawa and other voluntary organisations that were able to mobilize the community effectively. Just imagine thousands of unattended, stranded and displaced people, who have lost their livelihood means in a province where grievances are exploited by fiends to their advantage, and one can only predict catastrophe.

    Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair (OCHA) carried out a detailed analysis of disaster response agencies of Pakistan back in 2006. In its report on flood preparedness and response it noted, “Owing to non-occurrence of floods over the years, laxity has been observed in preparedness. No hazard assessment and coordination mechanisms are in place for flash floods in NWFP, Baluchistan and Northern Areas.” We did not pay heed to this. The growth of disaster relief cells and agencies has been reactionary in this country. We start preparing for disasters once it has struck.

    There are different disaster response agencies and they have their strengths and weaknesses. There is a need to improve coordination between them and to develop functional linkages. Functional clarity needs to come to remove duplication of efforts. Right now, there are many sporadic relief services being provided especially at the lowest level. It all needs to be integrated. The emphasis should be on developing the capacity of Local Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) and on organisation of community.

    The danger is far from over. According to Federal Flood Commission, the situation in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh will worsen in the coming days before it gets any better. It is true that citizens of this country display selfless attitude when it comes to helping their brethren. But eventually it is the capacity of state institutions that needs to be developed in order to improve governance. It is not for the first time floods have wreaked havoc upon us. Will it be the first time when government wakes up and displays the urgency in its ranks which is required to address the issues and that too not on ad hoc basis? Only time will tell.

  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/05/pakistan-floods-failure-state

    Pakistan’s floods are not just a natural disaster – by Kamila Shamsie

    First came the Taliban. Then the army. And now the floods. The people of the Swat valley – synonymous with beauty and peace just a few years ago – have cause to wonder if they are the most benighted people in the world. The oppressive and murderous rule of the Taliban, who had almost total control of the north Pakistan valley by the end of 2008, followed by the army’s retaliatory operation last year, which seemed to consider civilians entirely incidental to the matter of military strategy, forced 64% of the inhabitants of the Upper Swat region to join the numbers of internally displaced persons. By March this year, nearly 90% of those had returned to Upper Swat, badly in need of assistance to restart their lives, but at least with some hope that the worst was behind them. And then the rains came.

    At the last count, 54 villages have been swept away entirely. It is almost beyond emotional comprehension – the idea that the homes you were forced out of by violence and terror a year or more earlier, and to which you have only recently returned, are now gone completely, no trace remaining. And the floods are continuing – the death toll is already nearly 1,500, and more rains are expected. There is no province of Pakistan that is expected to remain unaffected – a grim irony given how rare it is for any event to draw together all of Pakistan’s feuding parties.

    It is possible to regard the floods as separate from the first two horsemen of the Apocalypse – the Taliban and the army. Floods are, after all, “natural disasters” or “acts of God” (take your pick – in Pakistan, most people will choose the latter). No one is culpable, no one could have prevented it. The truth is, the death toll could have been much lower, assistance much more quickly and efficiently at hand. Instead, report after report talks of the inadequacy of the state’s response to the crisis. This is made more maddening by the fact that much of the flooding took place in parts of the country that were already a humanitarian disaster zone.

    The Swat Valley should have been crowded by institutions of state helping rehabilitate those returning to their homes, and switching focus to flood relief should have been a fairly speedy process. After all, NGOs such as Oxfam and its local partners in Swat have made precisely that switch. The fact that a pre-existing disaster meant NGOs were on the ground and able to respond swiftly to the flooding is the thinnest of silver linings. But, while assistance from the state has not been wholly absent in the Swat valley in the last year, many of the proposed aid projects are yet to materialise and assistance has been slowed down by a tug of war between the military and civilian authorities for who has control of the rehabilitation.

    But it is not only the matter of response but also that of cause which implicates the state of Pakistan. In the last few years, environmental groups, activists and journalists have talked repeatedly of the power of the timber mafia, which has a particularly strong hold on the areas now affected by flooding. One of the most powerful and ruthless organisations within Pakistan, the timber mafia engages in illegal logging, which is estimated to be worth billions of rupees each year – the group’s connection to politicians at the local and federal level has been commented on in the media for years. The constant warnings about the timber mafia almost always include mention of the increased susceptibility of de-forested regions to flooding, landslides and soil erosion. But, in the way that horror tends to pile on horror in Pakistan, not only has the flooding been intense in areas where the timber mafia is active but the felled trees, hidden in ravines prior to smuggling them onwards, have caused havoc. Dislodged by torrents of water, they have swept away bridges and people and anything else in their path.

    There has been some suggestion that the high volume of timber transported along the rivers has been a factor in the weakening of the dams and retaining walls that are supposed to protect the land from flooding but have proved unequal to the task. Their failure to function has also brought up comparisons to the poor construction that resulted in collapsed government schools during the 2005 earthquake; then, blame landed on corrupt practices and lack of oversight by the authorities in the allocation of construction contracts.

    That the timber mafia reportedly gave active support to the Pakistan Taliban when they controlled Swat seems to have done nothing to diminish their influence with the state. Corruption transcends political difference. Where action is taken against the timber mafia it is often in the form of local villagers coming out to defend their trees. Pakistan’s citizens, time and again, find it falls to them to fill in the vacuum where there should be a state.

    So it’s fitting in a perverse way that while the number of those affected by the flood climbs to 3 million, Karachi burns in retaliatory violence following a political assassination on 2 August, and families wait for the DNA identification of the victims of the 28 July air-crash near Islamabad, Pakistan’s president is on his grand tour – first France, now the UK. Some in Pakistan ask why he is so far away in a time of disaster. But there is no place further away from the rest of Pakistan than the self-enclosed and self-serving world of government-dominated Islamabad. No doubt, during President Zardari’s visit to the UK, pundits will weigh in on the crises in Pakistan and the term “failed state” will be bandied around, either in defence or criticism of David Cameron’s “clear and frank” comments about terrorism. But in Pakistan, amid floods and ashes and yet more funerals, people live with the crushing awareness of a somewhat different formulation – not the state that has failed, but the state that fails its citizens.