After being hit by torrential rains and consequent floods that devastated the country in 2010 and 2011, one would have thought that the government of Pakistan and its people would be better prepared to deal with the rains with the arrival of monsoon this year. Considering that the monsoon hit us a little later than usual, one would have expected a better level of preparedness. Unfortunately, we see our provincial governments and municipalities still floundering and at a loss about the responses.
The extra time provided to us by Mother Nature — instead of the usual July, the rains hit us in the month of September — has not made much of a difference and if news reports are to be believed, as many as 69 rain-related deaths have been reported so far. Many more can be expected to die in the coming weeks as the critically injured will succumb to their injuries and more will perish in the rains that have been forecast for the next couple of weeks.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has stated, as late as September 9 that rivers are not expected to flood but, inland flooding can and already has, wreaked enough havoc in some areas. Cases of roofs collapsing because of rains and electrocution in urban centres have already been reported. The deaths may not be directly caused by the flooding but it is directly related to poor preparedness for a natural calamity. Similarly, landslides in the mountainous areas also cause rain-related accidents. We may not have experienced river flooding as yet but cases of inland flooding have been reported in Lahore, Rahimyar Khan, Hyderabad and Quetta. Inland flooding occurs when rain in an urban area exceeds the sewer system’s drainage capacity, as a result of which, water accumulates in the surrounding areas causing flooding.
Many canal breaches have also been reported. The provincial governments need to take their irrigation departments to task and ask them about the status and schedule of canal cleaning and fortification of embankments that is usually due before the rainy season.
The problem with Pakistan’s disaster management programmes is that there is more emphasis on disaster relief and disaster response and a lot less emphasis on disaster prevention measures. Countries that are more prone to natural disasters have only been able to minimise this problem by aggressively pursuing the prevention path over the years. Japan, Australia and the Philippines have amazing disaster prevention and disaster mapping programmes. Every major city in Japan has a city specific prevention and relief programme which is stated on their metropolitan websites. These projects detail everything from weather outlook to flood maps to evacuation routes and other services for the general public. If similar plans are to be replicated in Pakistan, it is necessary that flood-prone areas should have a disaster prevention map to identify the flood risk, the nearest safe areas and probable evacuation routes beforehand.
Those who would argue that Japan is a rich country and can set aside a vast sum for prevention should note that other impoverished countries have faced disasters better than the likes of the US. In 2001, a devastating hurricane hit Cuba but the people and the government were prepared. The death toll was limited to just five people, while more than 700,000 people were evacuated to emergency shelters.
It is not just money that is required for disaster prevention and preparedness; it requires planning, long-term commitment and political will and vision to bring about sustained changes in the way we view problems and disasters.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2012.