Pakistan has been experiencing devastating floods for the last three weeks. In a week’s time the water will start falling into the Arabian Sea, which will be the beginning of the end of the floods. However, the devastation and sufferings caused by the floods would continue to haunt the people of Pakistan for a long time. Rehabilitation and reconstruction of the flood-affected areas and people can take one to two years, provided the state machinery and society take up this task as a top priority and the international community is willing to provide financial and technical support.
There is a general tendency to either talk of the total failure of the federal and provincial governments in addressing the calamity or claim that everything is being done in an excellent manner. The private sector electronic media is focusing more on lapses and deficiencies and appears to be miserly in appreciating whatever effort is being made by various official and societal quarters.
What has hampered the performance of the government agencies is not merely the traditional lethargy and disregard for the problems of ordinary people, the magnitude of the disaster also explains it. No civil government can have the capacity to respond quickly to such a massive natural disaster.
In the case of Pakistan, the civil government did not envisage such a disaster until the floods inundated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and it had no advance arrangements to cope with the situation. The real problem is the attitude that does not consider it important to prepare in advance for natural or man-made disasters.
There are lessons to be learnt from the floods. The government must create disaster response arrangements at district level so that the local administration and community have enough know-how to deal with the situation in the initial stage, till the provincial and federal agencies can provide reinforcements. Every district must have flood and other disaster warning systems and the officials and volunteers from societal groups should be given training and orientation for coping with floods or other emergencies. Civil defence and first aid training must be regularly given all over Pakistan. Medical support systems must be available at the tehsil level with sufficient medicine and related material. The Boy Scouts and Girl Guides movements must be revived. The material for temporary shelter and rescue must be stored either at the district level or a regional storage facility should be developed for three to four districts. These arrangements would cost money but it is a worthwhile expenditure because these arrangements will help the community absorb the first shock of a calamity.
The military is best trained and equipped to undertake rescue and relief work, including the transportation of a large number of people and provision of food and medical support. These are part of their professional experience, which they transfer to civilian sectors. They have sufficient know-how and equipment to set up temporary bridges, repair communication networks and road links. Further, organizational coherence, inter-communication and discipline are the real assets that underline its better performance.
The military was called out under the directions of the prime minister and it effectively demonstrated its capacity to rescue the flood-affected people and administer relief operations effectively, which won appreciation from civil society and the civilian government.
If the civilian government’s initial response was slow and weak, the disposition of the political class was disappointing. No political party, especially the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), responded quickly for helping the distressed people. Three weeks later the PML-N has announced setting up some infrastructure for resource mobilization for the flood-affected people. Imran Khan also took almost three weeks to start work for helping the distressed people. The PPP has not done anything noticeable as a party. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has restricted its activities to urban Sindh. The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Falah-e-Insaniat, a subsidiary of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), and a few other Islamic groups undertook useful but limited relief work. Societal groups and organisations became active towards the end of the second or third week.
The bottom line is that both the official and non-official circles took time to move out for rescue and relief work, which caused much frustration among the displaced people. They expected the government and other agencies to help them at the first sign of the floods.
The flood-related issues have generated unnecessary bickering among different political parties and regional interests. Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments complained about neglect by the federal government. The Punjab chief minister demanded that his province must get its due share from foreign relief assistance. Former prime minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali and others from Balochistan accused the Sindh leadership of diverting floodwaters to Balochistan. One nationalist leader from Sindh blamed the federal government for letting more water enter Sindh, causing destruction there. The floods also revived the emotionally charged and controversial debate on the Kalabagh Dam.
The most intriguing proposal was offered by Nawaz Sharif to set up a high-powered commission of non-controversial individuals to manage the collection of funds and relief and reconstruction work. Prime Minister Gilani naively accepted the proposal without considering its operational problems. This is an impractical idea. If the commission is not given administrative and management powers, it cannot fulfil its obligations. If it is given powers to manage all flood-related affairs, what will be the role of the federal government?
It seems that Nawaz Sharif wanted to exclude the PPP-led federal government from managing flood-related foreign and local assistance and reconstruction and rehabilitation work. He also wanted to reduce the autonomous role of the army in flood-related affairs by making the commission the supreme body. The army top brass would have refused to subordinate their operations to a non-military commission.
The new National Oversight Disaster Management Council (NODMC) may appear toothless to the PML-N because it does not override the existing arrangements. It is integrated into the existing disaster management system but has sufficient monitoring powers.
The non-implementation of Nawaz Sharif’s proposal sets the stage for a new round of recriminations between the PML-N and the PPP. Nawaz Sharif would not like to engage in resource mobilization in collaboration with the federal government or the army. He is expected to channel his efforts through the Punjab government, which will be accompanied by a barrage of criticism of the federal government in order to delegitimize its role.