Pleasure turned into tragedy

DRRM policies, plans, structures, SOPs and yearly reports are all efficient

Sarwar Bari January 15, 2022
The writer is National Coordinator of Pattan Development Organisation and has served as head of FAFEN

Amongst the many tourists that came to Murree to enjoy the snowfall, twenty-two of them were met with a tragic fate. Who is to be blamed — the incumbent government, the successive governments, the tourists, the ‘unprecedented’ weather, or all? It’s the last mentioned. For a long time, Pakistan has been one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. We have spent billions on disaster prevention and response. And have suffered hugely — both economically and socially. Recall the two mega-disasters — the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 super floods.

In the aftermath of these disasters, between 2005 and 2015, Pakistan developed an impressive disaster risk reduction and disaster management legislation, policy framework, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and plans. High-quality academic analyses of disasters were conducted and preparations for vulnerability and [multi]hazard mapping of disaster-prone areas and populations, and state-of-the-art soft and hardware systems were set up, which are run by highly qualified personnel. Internationally acclaimed institutions and experts have also been involved in providing technical and financial support.

Just visit the websites of national and provincial disaster management authorities. I bet you will not find many holes in the disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) legislation. Their policies, plans, structures, SOPs and yearly reports are all efficient. For instance, the creation of Disaster Management Commissions (DMC) at federal and provincial levels under the National Disaster Management Act 2010 was indeed a great development. According to the Act, the role of DMCs is central to DRRM as they are the governing boards. At national and provincial levels, the DMC is being headed by Prime Minister and chief ministers respectively. While the leader of the opposition of the National Assembly, the Chairman of the Senate, and leaders of the opposition of provincial assemblies are members of their respective commissions. Besides, representation of the armed forces, various ministries, and civil society is ensured in the law. Back in June 2021, PATTAN the organisation that I am associated with had requested the DMAs to share information about several DMCs’ meetings held since 2010. However, as of 10th January, we have not received any response.

The website of the Punjab DMA shows that the “Disaster Response Plan 2021 prioritises the protection of lives, livelihood, and properties of people at risk. In this regard, Chief Minister, Punjab constituted a Cabinet Committee for Disaster Management under the chairmanship of Minister, Disaster Management Department Punjab. Similarly, other stakeholders are also invited to ensure their participation and to monitor the implementation of the decisions at their level.” However, the Punjab DMC remains unbothered. Isn’t it surprising that the leaders of the opposition across all assemblies have never strongly demanded that DMCs be made functional?

Back when PML-N was in power, it had treated the DMCs in the same way the PTI is treating it today. However, in the aftermath of the Murree tragedy, Shehbaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto demanded the resignation of Imran Khan. In the past, the same leaders failed the nation on such occasions and the opposition of the time demanded the same of the incumbents. The incumbents are rejecting the similar demands of a similar failure. Just recall, how the PPP government failed to save 1,000 lives from the heatwave in Sindh. And the PML-N should not forget how the Punjab government under the leadership of Shehbaz Sharif — perceived by many to be the ablest and most effective administrator of Punjab — failed the people during the 2010 floods in Punjab. He didn’t make the commission of inquiry report public as it would expose the poor disaster governance of his administration.

Simply, every ruling party failed the nation time and again during such situations. They shamelessly politicise each other’s failure but are not willing to improve their governance. Our media amplified the politicisation by only inviting politicians to their TV shows. Hardly, any scientists, disaster experts and practitioners were invited. Consequently, the confusion further multiplied. For instance, a TV show host claimed that people can’t die of extreme cold — hypothermia. Most anchors and newspapers reported that 150,000 vehicles entered the Murree hills on 6th and 7th January. However, no one bothered to check how many of them returned by the evening of the 7th. In short, it appears capturing viewership was prioritised over a humanitarian crisis.

Early warning and its adequate dissemination have a very strong relationship with disaster response. On 5th January, the Met Office had issued a high alert and early warning. While the media should have spread the message, most TV channels ignored publicising the warning. Even though all entry points to Murree are controlled by toll plazas, the local administration still failed miserably to prevent the flood of tourists. Though the Assistant Commissioner of Murree issued a road advisory, he did not take any concrete steps to block the entry points. On the other hand, some PTI ministers were seen attributing the rush as a sign of economic recovery and prosperity. That may be true, but doesn’t mean you ignore the well-being of citizens and do not fulfil your legal responsibilities.

Also, the successive governments have failed to establish District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) in most districts including Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which is mandatory under Section 18 of the 2010 Act. In the absence of powerful elected local governments, disaster management will remain poor.

It seems right to conclude that a top-heavy disaster management structure/mechanism — run by technocrats and bureaucrats alone and not being governed by elected bodies from top to bottom (National Disaster Management Commissions and elected local councils) — is most likely to keep on repeating similar tragedies. On the other hand, consider the success story of the National Command Operation Centre (NCOC). Its success primarily relies on a strong organic relationship between the elected representatives and technocrats, and regular coordination between the two. In almost every other area of hazard, the whole burden is being put on the shoulders of bureaucracy. The PTI government needs to reform the disaster management structure in the light of the NCOC model. Otherwise, as the proverb goes, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, the test of disaster reduction and response is in disaster itself, not on the website. As we throw away a bad pudding, as we throw away old tyres, we need to discard the paper-tiger disaster management too.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 15th, 2022.

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