Our current state of disaster preparedness
By: Syed Mohammad Ali
While the possibility of extreme monsoon events occurring cannot yet be ruled out, one hopes that some of the 29 districts identified by the Pakistan Meteorological Department as being vulnerable to flooding this year may escape the ensuing misery. The early August monsoon update for Pakistan released by the UN has, however, issued flash flood warnings for DG Khan, Sialkot and Rajanpur. The Kabul River is also already in a state of a low/medium flood. Conversely, drought conditions remain prevalent across southern Balochistan and if the current precipitation persists, we may even see a negative impact on kharif (summer) crop productivity.
Pakistan, unfortunately, remains one of the global hotspots in terms of risk of geological, hydro-meteorological and climatic disasters. In the past few years, we have been hit by major catastrophes including the earthquake in 2005, and floods in 2007, 2010 and 2011. Despite this spate of catastrophic national disasters, disaster preparedness and management are not getting the attention or resources they deserve.
Having worked on the evaluation of post-disaster programmes, one knows that much still needs to be done to ensure better preparedness to contend with disaster and to lessen haphazardness of response. There is ample evidence of poorly planned rehabilitation efforts, due to which poor tenants were compelled to rebuild houses on land owned by sardars in earthquake-hit districts like Battagram and of rehabilitation resources being usurped by powerful landowners, leaving poor haris impoverished and reluctant to return to their villages in Sindh.
In the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, the government promulgated the National Disaster Preparedness Ordinance. This resulted in the establishment of a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Despite the formulation of a detailed national-level disaster management framework in 2006, the NDMA has not been able to put in place a structure below the provincial level to manage funds and maintain the stocks of items required for emergencies. Even the provincial bodies responsible for disaster management, Provincial Disaster Management Authorities, lack trained staff and funds.
The Peoples Accountability Commission on Floods has highlighted the fact that none of the provinces have allocated the required funding (Rs5 billion) for emergencies during the current budget year. Out of a total development budget of Rs231 billion, the Sindh government allocated only Rs500 million for relief and rescue. Despite the havoc unleashed by recurrent floods, repair work on embankments has not taken place, due to which canal breaches continue to occur within the province this year as well.
Not having allocated sufficient funds, our provincial governments again remain dependent on humanitarian funding from donors who have increasingly shown less interest in supporting disaster relief in Pakistan. Entities like UNICEF are now severely short of funds needed to prepare themselves for emergency crises like unexpected floods or droughts in the country.
The NDMA is currently working on a plan to provide disaster-risk insurance for the county’s 180 million people to cover the loss of human lives, livelihoods, shelter and livestock, which reportedly could become the biggest insurance venture in the world. While this is an ambitious goal, there is need to ask who will pay for the cost of insurance. Most probably, poor people who have hardly contributed to climate change will be made to pay for insurance through high interest microfinance schemes.
To brace ourselves against future disasters, Pakistan needs to not only demonstrate greater political foresight and build the required institutional capacity, but also instill a shift in the national psyche. However, there are no signs of this happening, either. Even the NDMA’s plan to include disaster management as a subject in the syllabus until matriculation is yet to be put into effect. While natural disasters cannot be averted, they can certainly be better managed. In order to be able to do so, we still need to take significant steps.