On disaster reduction day — lessons for Pakistan?

Published: October 12, 2017
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The writer works for Pattan Development Organisation

The writer works for Pattan Development Organisation

On 30th July 2010, as much as 600,000 cusecs of water were released from Tarbela Dam, while the River Kabul at Attock had already reached the exceptionally high-flood stage — carrying 400,000 cusecs of water. One ‘small’ mistake and the River Indus was turned into an unrelenting monster. We suffered a colossal disaster as a result. But its trigger was not natural as we were made to believe; it was manmade — a blunder of the highest order. It was a replay of 1992, when one million cusecs of water were released from Mangla Dam at one go. The floodwaters of two rivers — the Jhelum and the Chenab met at Trimun — a controllable hazard was turned into a huge disaster. Creativity frightens our officials, as taqleed is deeply ingrained in their blood. In 2014, managers of Mangla Dam once again instead of using the SOPs innovatively followed in the footsteps of their predecessors — committing yet another blunder.

Our hazard managers excel in disaster creation — a clear sabotage of our disaster-reduction policy and plan. And our politicians love disasters because they help reinforce already entrenched patronage-based constituency politics. They would spend a lot of time on distributing relief packages to the disaster-hit people in far-flung areas but have no time to spend even a day in a year on disaster-risk reduction. This is a tale of perpetual negligence and sustained opportunism.

Experts agree that disaster occurs when hazards and vulnerabilities clash. For instance, the National Disaster Management Policy caters for those vulnerable and disabled, but the power structure and infrastructure keep on deepening marginalisation and spreading disabilities and vulnerabilities. Therefore, disaster management bodies’ work resembles a bottomless pit.

Just visit riverine areas of the country or even the capital and you would find vulnerability invention everywhere. The designs and placement of bridges, embankments, schools, health centres and roads clearly reveal vulnerabilities of these structures to flooding. Here is some proof. According to the Flood Risk Assessment Report 2015, about 156,000 sq km (18% of the total) areas are at risk to riverine flooding alone. Consequently, as many as 53,000 educational and 10,5000 health facilities, and 13,700 bridges are at risk, too.

No wonder, we have suffered $70 billion in economic losses just in a quarter of a century. Consider this too. According to the 2015 Global Assessment Report on DRR, 39.1% of the total disaster-related deaths during 1990 -2014 were caused due to earthquakes, while shared only 8.4% of the total economic losses. On the other hand, hydrological disasters like floods, flash floods/rains triggered 92% of the total economic damage during the same period. On average, annually floods contribute 77.6% of the total disaster-related losses.

This takes place despite construction of 3,972km-long embankments/spurs, creation of disaster-management authorities at federal and provincial levels and enactment of disaster management laws. Analysis of flood protection measures and losses clearly establishes that since 1950, per sq km flood disaster losses have continued to rise. This reflects truly the state of our disaster governance.

Celebrating International Disaster Reduction Day (IDRD) or a week in this context may seem odd but not completely. In fact, it creates an opportunity to remind the rulers what is wrong with our disaster governance. So let’s avail this opportunity.

Let us first provide a little background. In 1989, the United Nations General Assembly declared 13th October the International Day for Disaster Reduction. Its purpose was ‘to promote a global culture of risk-awareness and disaster reduction.’ The decade of 1990 was declared disaster-reduction decade followed by the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-15. At the Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held in March 2015 in Japan, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) 2015–2030 was adopted. The participating countries, experts and CSOs after heated debate and tough negotiations agreed to seven goals. Among them were: (A) substantially reducing disaster mortality; (B) reducing the number of affected people; (C) reducing disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services. This year the day focuses on target (B).

In remembrance of the victims of the devastating 2005 earthquake, the federal and provincial governments had declared 8th October the National Disaster Awareness Day in 2015. Since then, the government has been holding events on 8th October in collaboration with civil society organisations across the country.

While electronic media gave little coverage to the day or held any talk show, a number of news items and articles appeared in the print media. The federal and provincial governments also issued huge awareness or propaganda ads. Almost every newspaper, including The Express Tribune, wrote — despite the lapse of 12 years only half of the promises were fulfilled. Almost half of the damaged health and educational institutions have not been built despite availability of funds. Most post-quake built houses don’t fit to “Build-Back-Better” standard. Not a single house has been built in the New Balakot city. Isn’t it shameful?

The Pakistan chapter of the Global Network of CSOs for Disaster Reduction (GNDR) in collaboration with JAD Foundation, Pattan and UNDP is also holding a national conference on 13-14 October in Chitral — one of the most vulnerable districts to hazards. Many disaster-reduction actors such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), provincial DMAs, district government Chitral, University of Chitral and representatives of CSOs across the country will assemble there. The energy generated through anniversaries and events must help us to refresh our resolve to reducing disaster losses.

A lot has to be done. We have to fully understand causes of poor disaster governance: (i) lack of risk assessment at the time of project planning, (ii) unabated development in the flood plains, (iii) mismanagement of water reservoirs, and, above all the corrupt governance. The UNISDR framework for DRR action seems to be useful to our malaise. First, better understanding of disaster risk in all its aspects is essential. This knowledge will be useful for risk assessment, prevention, preparedness and response. Second, strengthen disaster governance. Third, invest on making people and structures resilient — ‘Build-Back-Better.’ It’s easier said than done. Yet, prevention is easier and more cost effective. Disaster experts reached this conclusion — ‘spend $1 and save $7’.

What is to be done? Disaster-prone people are isolated and scattered over large areas. They are unorganised and marginalised. Hence, they don’t dare to speak against those who cause them harm. There is no harm in collaborating with state institutions for a greater cause. However, CSOs instead of becoming junior partners of government bodies by signing MoUs, at least speak on behalf of disaster-prone people. The best way forward is to make them able to articulate their problems and to make officials accountable without any fear of reprisal. This is only possible if CSOs neutralise the powerful and corrupt officials.

Thirty years ago, there was no academic programme on disaster reduction. Today, a number of universities are teaching the subject. However, the relationship between academia and disaster management institutes remains skewed. Its causes should be probed and addressed on a priority basis. Also, there is a serious need to investigate failures of our disaster management system. Academics should investigate the causes. Each year a social audit should be conducted to assess progress against each of the 118 priority actions and interventions of the NDMA plan. Any major lessons? We should appreciate those who perform well, and shame and punish those who convert manageable hazards into disasters.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2017.

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