Disaster risk reduction without fixing disaster liability

Published: July 29, 2017
The writer works with Pattan Development Organisation and can be reached at bari@pattan.org

The writer works with Pattan Development Organisation and can be reached at bari@pattan.org

It’s flood season. By July 26th, about 100 people have already lost their lives due to rains/flooding. It is just the beginning of the season, and it may continue till the middle of September. Are our governments and disaster reduction and response institutions, ie, the National Disaster Management Authority and the Provincial Disaster Management Authorities, fully prepared? As far as their rhetoric is concerned, it appears they are. We must not forget that an effective disaster management must stand on two pillars — risk reduction and response. Most disasters occurred in Pakistan due to poor risk perception and pathetic risk reduction measures. Poor management of dams could be cited as a good example.

Regarding preparedness for response, I would like to state here the absence of the disaster management structure at the district and union council level — the foundation of the National Disaster Management Plan. Let’s hope heavens don’t burst like the 2010 floods, because today our ruling family has no time for governance. It is facing the worst kind of political hazard of its political life. Therefore, we have genuine reason to worry because when natural hazard and political hazard take place simultaneously, it is always lethal.

If history is any indicator, disaster prevention without risk reduction measures is not possible at all. Governments and communities who don’t understand the importance between the two suffered from disasters repeatedly. This is the tale of Pakistan’s disaster management, but traditional riverine communities knew it very well. However, due to unwise infrastructural developments in the riverine areas coupled with poor social services, not only are new risks being created, but also vulnerabilities of people have deepened and spread widely. For them, each future disaster will cause more deaths, more losses, more economic burden and more poverty, and enhance vulnerability.

Pakistan is a disaster-prone country. Just recall the 2010 mega flood disaster and the 2005 earthquake. Also it is pertinent to state here that between 1950 and 2014, the country suffered from 24 major flood disasters. These killed more than 11,000 people and caused economic losses worth Rs55 billion by hitting nearly 200,000 villages. Most of these villages were hit repeatedly.

On June 25th while Pakistani Muslims were readying to celebrate Eid, an oil tanker overturned near Bahawalpur. It should have been a normal accident but it turned into a huge disaster — 225 preventable deaths. In this case, both pillars — risk prevention and response — were largely absent. One can site plenty of such examples.

Who is to be blamed for this huge and repeated negligence? In most countries legal frameworks exist and according to these processes, responsibility of disasters and serious accidents are established through independent investigation. Unfortunately, in our country under the National Disaster Management Act 2010 officials cannot be punished and inquiry commissions never bite any culprit. In fact very often, this exercise is conducted just to shun criticism or to save the real culprits. Consider the following.

In the aftermath of the 2010 floods, the Supreme Court of Pakistan constituted a commission of inquiry. Both the Sindh and Punjab governments also set up bodies to inquire into the causes of the flood disaster. All three commissions identified the causes and the culprits. Though some officials were indicted by name, the fact of the matter is — no one was punished. While the Supreme Court made its report public, the provincial governments did not. Though this disaster killed nearly 2,000 people, displaced as many as 20 million people, and caused economic losses worth $43 billion, both the affected people and the civil society organisations that were active then never bothered to push authorities for justice. The affectees too instead of fighting for justice, were silenced through ‘compensation’ packages.

Now consider this. On April 15th 1989, in a Hillsborough football stadium in England, 95 people were killed and 766 received injuries. According to British media reports, just before the start of the match, in order to ease the pressure of a huge crowd outside the entrance, the security chief ordered to open an exit gate. This furthered the chaos and caused human stampede. In the aftermath of the disaster, “police authorities fed false stories to the media by blaming Liverpool fans’ hooliganism”. A number of inquests absolved the police. The families who had lost their loved ones steadfastly refused to accept the findings, including the orders of Lord Justice Stuart Smith.

Sustained pressure and persistent lobbying forced the government to set up an independent investigation commission to investigate the causes in 2010. The previous inquiry had accused the police and ambulance services of profound negligence but didn’t absolve spectators from hooliganism. The new panel of inquiry not only found the police responsible for disaster but also found spectators innocent. Once police officials declared responsible for disaster, it became easier for victims’ families to demand action against the police. Further investigation finally charged half a dozen senior police officials with gross misconduct and manslaughter.

Thirty-seven years later, in June 2017 six people, including ex-chief constable Sir Norman Bettison and the chief superintendent, were charged with various offences, including manslaughter by gross negligence, misconduct in public office and preventing the course of justice during and after the disaster. One of the reasons of this delayed justice was the attitude of police authorities. They had attempted to pass the buck on the spectators’ rowdiness, but failed.

Justice delayed is considered equivalent to justice denied. That may be true, but better late than never is also true. In the case of the UK, the culprits were finally charged. In Pakistan, they are never. Like the 1992 floods, the 2010 floods turned into tumultuous disasters due to the release of one million and 600,000 cusecs of water from Mangla and Tarbela dams, respectively. The incumbent governments mischievously tried to hide behind — unprecedented rain and cloud bursting. In fact, like the negligence by the British police (failing to manage the crowed in light of the Hillsborough stadium gates), the chief engineers of the dams committed huge negligence too by first continuing the filling of the dams and then opening the gates without following their own SOPs diligently. Hence, floodwater turned into tumultuous disasters. No one was punished. Since then, Pakistanis have been facing avoidable deaths and losses but our successive governments continue to protect the culprits. The result is that hazards turn into disasters more frequently in our country.

Why did successive governments fail us? In my view, besides poor governance, disaster provides a great opportunity for our rulers to consolidate their vote bank. I have been working with disaster-prone communities since the 1992 floods, and I have observed after each disaster how desperate MPAs and MNAs would be to grab as much relief and cash as they could. They would even approach our staff to hand over relief items to them. It is another matter whether distribution is conducted on the basis of any merit/need. They would very often provide help only to their voters through local patrons, who keep the vote bank intact. And very often they would siphon off huge quantity of relief items and sell them later.

In short, without making Disaster Risk Reduction a topmost priority and without introducing heavy penalties in our law for negligence, flood disasters will continue wreaking havoc on the already vulnerable public, as well as on the national economy.

If authorities could deny justice in the UK for more than three decades, in Pakistan this may take six decades. Yet that shouldn’t deter us from demanding justice and fixing liability.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2017.

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