Legal Framework for Managing Disasters in Pakistan: Key Challenges -by Aley

Disasters occur when communities and households substantially suffer from hazards, and the livelihood security is devastated provisionally or for a longer time. Multiple factors such as community vulnerability and the limited ability to reduce the potential negative impacts of hazards give birth to a disaster. The disasters can also be interpreted as results of inadequately managed hazards and vulnerabilities- Losses that could have been avoided or reduced by introducing appropriate disaster management measures.

The Policy and legal framework arrangements in a given context play pivotal role of planning, implementation and monitoring the processes of disaster risk management. Along with the framework ensure coordination among all stakeholders and integrate DRM efforts into development policies and programmes in order to reduce the quantum of vulnerability of the populace. The DRM matrix at national level is responsible for developing policy frameworks, disaster management plans and codes of conduct in relief and development. The national disaster management institutions guide, direct and support in developing early warning systems, and in declaring states/phases of emergency during disasters. Yet the very existence of DRM framework does not ensure the functionality and operationability of the DRM.

Pakistan may rightly be considered as one of the regions exposed to multiple forms of natural and man made disasters- a true epitome of the word “disaster” (‘Bad Star’ in Greek). Located in the heart of Eurasian and Indian plates, the Geological assessment unfolds a number of vulnerabilities faced by Pakistan, ranging from being earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones, landslides, and sea based hazards. The geographical milieu coupled with an unkind labyrinth of poverty, unbridled urbanization, conflict, poor institutionalization, bursting population, and chronic malnutrition, have made Pakistan a willing host to unsolicited visitors, leaving their indelible imprints in form loss of life and livelihood, environmental degradation, eroded of development gains etc.

Pakistan till recently had been following the conventional relief and response oriented model for coping and managing the risk of disasters. Since inception the record of managing disasters in Pakistan can best be described as casual and incoherent, largely focusing on reactive strategy of relief and response. Since the sixth decade of twentieth century, when Pakistan faced first major flood disaster in terms of life and livelihood (It claimed 2910 lives and affected more than 10,000 villages), natural disasters are a regular incidence, e.g. floods, drought, cyclones, earthquakes and landslides, yet the consecutive governments failed miserably to formulate a more cohesive strategy for managing disasters. Flood being the most frequently occurring phenomenon, managed to take attention of policy makers in late 60’s and a Flood Control Programme was launched for the first time. The plan also made its way into the 4th Five Year Plan (1970-75). The drafting of National Disaster Plan in 1974 by Federal Emergency Relief Cell can be identified as the first lucid effort which addressed different aspects of disaster management. The plan envisaged procedures, organizational structures, identifying primary responsibilities, responder agencies, and procedures of monitoring relief operations. But the Plan was neither finalised nor implemented.

The National Calamities (Prevention and Relief) Act 1958, can also be cited as a major instrument in the local DM set up yet its focus is also limited to relief and compensation. Other major building blocks of Pakistan’s Disaster Management system including; The Federal Emergency Relief Cell, a central disaster management structure working under the Federal Cabinet Division, Civil Defence department working under Civil Defence Act 1952 (as amended in 1993), Fire Fighting services have failed to deliver whenever confronted with a major catastrophe or calamity.

A glaring example in this regard was the drafting of Pakistan Emergency Service Ordinance and Pakistan Emergency and Fire Code in 2002, in the aftermath of fire in the 17-storey Shaheed-e-Millat Secretariat in Islamabad. The ordinance sought to provide for the setting up of a new federal Pakistan Emergency and Fire Council which would be tasked with formulating and then implementing a code of rules, regulations and specifications regarding the safety of life and property from fires, explosions and other hazardous materials. The proposed Rescue and Fire Service, an amalgamation of the Civil Defence Department and the Fire Brigade, was also mandated to inspect any building or premises for hazardous conditions as mentioned in the proposed Pakistan Emergency and Fire Code, and also to investigate the cause, the origin and the circumstances of all such incidents. But nothing was achieved on this front as well.

Till 2005 one can only trace fragmented and isolated efforts for developing national level disaster risk management. The year 2005 proved to be the watershed in the context of disasters. Pakistan faced the devastating Earthquake in October 2005 which exposed the vulnerability of the existing emergency and disaster response apparatus. The EQ 2005 changed Pakistan’s perceptions about how to manage disasters. Besides this horrific event, Pakistan also became a signatory of the international disaster risk reduction protocol, Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-15. Both these developments worked as catalyst leading to the promulgation of National Disaster Management Ordinance in 2006. The introduction of NDMO was a significant shift from the conventional model towards a more proactive pattern of governance based on Disaster Risk Reduction. It focuses on nine priority areas as enshrined in the Hyogo Framework for Action, 2005. The law is viewed as a leap forward in the right direction as it proposes a comprehensive disaster management framework which encompasses pre-disaster as well as post-disaster aspects. The practice of last three years and recent floods has revealed a number of inadequacies and issues in the existing framework.

Laws & Institutions With Overlapping Jurisdiction:

The National Calamities (Prevention and Relief) Act 1958 provides for the maintenance and restoration of order in areas affected by certain calamities and for the prevention and control of and relief against such calamities. Under the Rules of Business 1973, the subject of Disaster Relief at national level is assigned to the Emergency Relief Cell established under Cabinet Division. The Civil Defence Act 1952(As Amended In 1993), Punjab Emergency Service Act 2006, and National Crisis Management Cell Working under Ministry Of Interior) is a round-the-Clock Control Room for information collection on Crises/Emergencies.

Institutional Issues at National level:

Despite creation of a National platform for disaster management the present scenario at national level thrives on gross duplication, poor coordination and communication. Moreover the existing framework does not establish formal linkages with relevant ministries, departments, or directorates. The legal arrangement (NDMO2006) fails to identify and define relationship between key disaster related institutions. The duplication of functions is another core issue which the law needs to address vigorously e.g. prior to the establishment of NDMA, Federal Emergency Relief Cell was the lead organisation for disaster management, yet it is still operational with no distinct role to perform. There exists a long list of responding agencies in case of a disaster including Civil Defence, Fire Fighting, Army, Police Emergency, Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) etc. But the existing Disaster Management Law fails to establish tangible linkages for a harmonized response strategy. Similar failing is obvious in institutionalizing early warning & information management by addressing to the linkages of NDMA with organisations like Pakistan Meteorological Department and SUPARCO. Other important institutions which are not formally linked with the National Disaster Management System include: Federal Flood Commission, Dams Safety Council, Environment Ministry, NVM (National Volunteer Movement), Geographical Survey of Pakistan etc.

Issues at Provincial Level Setup:

As it became obvious in recent showdown that politics is thriving on disaster, it would be pertinent to review the issues at provincial level. In case of Punjab especially, Punjab government has been dragging its feet on the functionalizing of the provincial law. Along with it is obvious that while drafting the ordinance, key existing laws were not taken in to consideration as one fails to discern any reference or attempt to relate or incorporate the provision of said laws in NDMO 2006. A succinct comparison with Punjab National Calamities (Prevention & Relief) Act 1958 and Punjab Emergency Service Act 2006 can elicit this. In all the provinces the National Calamities (Prevention & Relief) Act 1958 is in operation, with a scope to provide for maintenance and restoration of order in areas affected by certain calamities and for the prevention of and control and of relief against calamities[2]. Whereas NDMO aims to establish a National Disaster Management System, but falls short of relating to the existing DM structure at provinces. National Calamities (Prevention & Relief) Act 1958 lists down a set of specific calamities to address, which include; “flood, famine, and locust or other pests, hailstorms, fire or epidemics” and goes further expanding the domain by adding “or any calamity which in the opinion of the Govt. warrants action”[3]. As NDMO 2006 aims to provide a comprehensive disaster management framework at national level, it would have been appropriate to substantiate, amend, repeal or revoke the existing disaster frameworks in place.

The scope of Punjab Emergency Service Act 2006, constitution and functions of Punjab Emergency Council, and District Emergency Board[4] are to a large extent the same as are provided for Provincial Disaster Management Commission, Provincial Disaster Management Authority and District Disaster Management Authority in the National Disaster Management Ordinance 2006[5].

The national legal framework for disaster management i.e. NDMO has more merits yet it succumbed to turf wars, narrow political vision and entrenched interests the result is what we are seeing today a colossal loss to life and property all over Pakistan.

[1] B. Wisner, P. Blaikie, T. Cannon, and I. Davis (2004). At Risk – Natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters, Wiltshire: Routledge

[2] Preamble, National Calamities (Prevention & Relief) Act 1958

[3] Section 3, National Calamities (Prevention & Relief) Act 1958

[4] Sections 4-8, Punjab Emergency Service Act 2006

[5] Chapter III & Chapter IV(Article 13-24), National Disaster Management Ordinance, 2006.



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