Humanitarian Summit – lessons for Pakistan

In last 20 years, natural disasters affected 218 million people at an economic cost of more than $300b each year

Sarwar Bari May 22, 2016
The writer is a social activist who is the National Coordinator for Pattan Development Organisation. The views expressed here are his own

The two-day, first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) kicks off in Istanbul today. According to a UN document released before the summit, nearly 60 million people, half of them children, have been forced from their homes due to conflict and violence. The UN also acknowledges that despite unprecedented investment in natural disaster management, the human and economic costs of disasters are rising. In the last 20 years, natural disasters affected 218 million people at an economic cost of more than $300 billion each year. Pakistan is prone to all kinds of disasters, including terrorism, which has alone caused the displacement of millions of people internally. Their repatriation and rehabilitation will cost billions. In addition, despite massive investments in the construction of a 3,972km-long embankment and spurs, establishment of multiple administrative structures and new legislation, flood disaster related losses have continued to rise since 1950. Yet, we continue to see mindless investments in similar projects with little positive impact.

In order to understand the puzzle, it is pertinent to diagnose the problem. Experts agree that disasters result from a clash between vulnerability and hazard. Let’s take the example of floods. The official data sets clearly show that our planners have only invested in hazards. For instance, they built spurs and embankments, and criminally neglected the reduction of vulnerabilities. As a result, the vulnerabilities deepened and spread. When floodwater, a hazard, broke the walls of embankments, losses quadrupled. This has been happening because our disaster managers never tried to understand the disaster management cycle (DMC) fully, which broadly consists of three stages: risk reduction, preparedness for better response and reconstruction. One weak link in this chain can destroy all investments. The flood enquiry commissions set up to investigate the causes of the 2010 floods categorically blamed the authorities for incompetence, poor planning and mismanagement. The UN agencies also learnt that without adopting a holistic approach, disaster losses cannot be reduced.

Losses have also continued to rise because states have failed to implement the disaster risk reduction (DRR) framework in letter and spirit. Very often, powerful vested interests influence planners. In Pakistan, erecting embankments and spurs is a highly lucrative business, both for contractors and officials. We enacted the National Disaster Management Act 2010 and established the much-needed National Disaster Management Authority as well. We also set up similar provincial bodies but failed to establish disaster management authorities at district and community levels. This is not a coincidence. Corrupt officials and contractors skillfully sabotage the establishment of community-centered oversight bodies. This is not unique to Pakistan; there are those who share similar tales at international conferences. All these countries are wasting scarce resources, deepening vulnerabilities and making development unsustainable. As a result, the officials of these countries face embarrassment at regional and world conferences.

Finally, to fully understand the DMC, one must know that even with a state-of-the-art DRR strategy, disasters can still occur. Therefore, it is better to be prepared with a response, which must be driven by humane principles and values. The UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and Sphere Handbook demand of states and non-state humanitarian agencies to follow these principles and standards while assisting affected people. The WHS, therefore, expects leaders and stakeholders to perform five responsibilities: prevent and end conflicts, respect the rules of war, leave no one behind, work differently to end needs and invest in humanity. These principles are in line with our Constitution. I would refer to Articles 9, 14, 25 and 38(d). It is extremely important to highlight the importance of the WHS principle to leave no one behind because very often, one finds parliamentarians pushing officials and NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance to areas where they have won elections. This kind of discrimination has left many behind.
The WHS provides us an opportunity to do some soul-searching in order to improve our disaster management strategy and its implementation. For that, the government is urged to form community-run disaster management bodies. This is the only way forward to reduce human and economic losses in the country.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 23rd, 2016.

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