Jalaluddin Rumi, the great 13th century Persian Sufi poet, famously remarked: “He, who has no empathy for the suffering of others, has no right to be called a human being”. When natural calamities strike large numbers of people, then individuals and societies, whose humanity is intact, express their empathy in an organised and systematic way to provide succour to those in distress. The floods that have once again ravaged Sindh have affected 5.3 million people, swept away 1.2 million homes and damaged crops on two million acres of agriculture land. This disaster has struck at a time when Pakistan’s society has been mauled by the violence of armed groups, the government is under severe pressure, both financial and political and the state is struggling to re-establish a working relationship with the international community. The test of nationhood is to bring our humanity and skill to bear to provide relief and then rehabilitation to those displaced by the flood, in spite of our constrained circumstances. As Mian Muhammad, the 19th century Punjabi Sufi poet observed: “Now my being is caught in a bind, like sugarcane in a cane crusher, now that which is within, must stand this test of truth”.
Three dimensions of a response to the flood disaster can be identified: (a) Immediate relief measures over the next month; (b) medium-term rehabilitation measures over the next year and (c) longer-term institutional arrangements whereby the financial and management resources can be put into place for a systematic response to natural disasters in the future.
In the first phase, providing relief entails mobilising funds from government sources and private philanthropy, acquiring the necessary goods such as drinking water, food, bedding and temporary shelter in a transparent manner and ensuring that they reach those in need promptly. At the same time, given the danger of outbreak of diseases such as dengue, cholera, typhoid and dysentery, emergency medical services and the required medicines must be provided without delay. The organisational mechanisms for these initiatives will require close coordination between NGOs in civil society, federal government agencies such as the National Disaster Management Authority, the Pakistan Army, Navy, PAF and provincial government departments. This requires that the political leadership focuses on the task of leading the effort of disaster management.
For the second phase, a rehabilitation plan will have to be prepared by the federal and provincial governments in consultation with civil society organisations and international aid agencies to help reconstruct homes, provide livelihoods, recover agriculture land, reconstitute the disrupted agriculture production cycle and provide medical facilities for persisting flood related diseases.
The third dimension of the national response to the current flood disaster must start with the recognition that the consequences of global warming do not lie in the distant future but are already upon us. As I have argued earlier in these columns, the latest scientific research on climate change suggests that there will be an increased frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events. The increased variability of monsoons with respect to timing and volume of precipitation will cause recurrent floods, droughts and storms. The accelerated melting of some Himalayan glaciers associated with global warming will further exacerbate the problem. According to a recent report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change could reduce crop yields of food grain in South Asia by 30 per cent. Apart from this, rising sea levels are expected to increase the salinity of coastal agriculture plains which could displace an estimated 125 million people in South Asia.
Science makes clear that in the years ahead we can expect not only an increased frequency of floods and droughts, but also food shortages as well as large migrations of distressed populations both within countries and across international borders in South Asia. Managing these disasters requires establishing institutional mechanisms for coordination between the government and civil society organisations within Pakistan and also between the countries of South Asia. New institutional mechanisms informed by a sense of humanity are required to deal with the present and possible future disasters.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2011.