Our reaction to the floods

Raza Rumi

Thousands are dead and injured and millions are displaced due to the floods. The national reaction to this calamitous situation has been that the president should have cancelled his visit to the UK. The president too has not been sagacious. But the debate is frivolous and sidetracks the real issue: our sheer lack of preparedness for natural disasters and emergency management.

Five years ago, a massive-earthquake rocked Pakistan. Later, several institutions such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) were set up to deal with natural calamities. While it would be unfair to critique the good work done by the NDMA, it is clear that centralised authorities and relief machinery are of little use in a populous, diverse country like Pakistan.

In the last five years, as the recent floods indicate, the state has done little to galvanise and decentralise disaster preparedness and management. Between 2005 and 2010, the magnitude of natural disasters was not large enough to expose the inherent weaknesses of the emergency infrastructure. As before, Pakistanis have come forward and an unprecedented civic activism and volunteerism can be seen in reaching out to victims of the floods across the country.

Central to our predicament is the decline and, in some instances, the collapse of institutions. At the provincial and district levels, the state machinery is reactive and when faced with a colossal disaster it crumbles. This is not limited to government institutions. Take the case of civil defence: it remains a neglected arena with little funding, mobilisation and leadership.

This time monsoon warnings were given much earlier. True that Pakistan is passing through a terrible phase and the state is on the defensive but at the local level arrangements could have been made with the cooperation of the citizenry to prevent some of the deaths that were caused by the floods. Similarly, the advance warning system was hardly effective anywhere.

It is sad to see the mainstream media’s obsession with Asif Ali Zardari, and how the Centre-Punjab tussle is eating away both airtime and newsprint. A thorough debate could have resulted out of this mess but rarely does it happen. Had the post-eighteenth amendment president stayed in the country would the effects of the natural disaster been any different?

There is little discussion on the environmental damage caused by decades of wanton development. We are thoroughly unprepared for climate change mitigation and adaptation — a national policy is being framed now when several countries have moved ahead. We have packed up local governments and provincialised planning and development functions of districts and towns. How can we be serious about instilling local capacities when we are not committed to effective, accountable local governance? National cells and authorities are not enough. Powers, functions and capacities to manage disasters should devolve and an appropriate policy framework be redefined. Otherwise, the lives of Pakistanis will remain vulnerable to disasters.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2010.

15 Comments

Filed under Climate Change, Environment, North-West Frontier Province, Northern Areas, Pakistan, Zardari

15 responses to “Our reaction to the floods

  1. Mustafa Shaban

    @Raza: I disagree with you. You are right in saying that the main debate should be about strengthening our institutions and our disaster management. But at this point of time the country needs leadership. AAZ needed to be with the people as emotional support, people need to know their leader stands with them. This shows the leadership is not in line with the people. When much smaller disasters took place in China and America and elsewhere their own heads of states canceled their overseas trips and returned to their country immediately. This what all the democratic countries do. Another thing is that all that taxpayer money used to buy the hotel rooms and the conference halls in Birmingham and other expenses could have been used to aid the flood victims. Pakistan is not doing well, yet its President roams in his own private jet and books an entire floor of a 5 star hotel. If you look at other democratic countries their leaders don’t have such luxurious visits to other countries even though they are doing well. Michelle Obama was widely criticized for her visit to Spain in a lavish fashion. David Cameron came on business class of British Airways. Our disaster management is an important topic and must be discussed but it would be stupid if we did not include the role of leadership into the discussion.

  2. Maryanne Khan

    Raza

    rightly you say that the presence of a man who gives not a damn about his presence in HIS own country will make yea or nea a difference, but god it looks bad. Australian TV has done nothing but telecast side by side broadcasts of his junket overseas and the disasters at home and we weep to see the hardship. Believe me, we do and I in particular.

    But as you say, there should be infrastructure in place that can cope in the absence of an individual who might / can / wants to make a diff.

    M

  3. I partially agree with the post – the AAZ factor notwithstanding, the nation and its various agencies have done tremendously well. The armed forces like always rose to the occasion and have rescued a large number of people.
    But here I may also add the role and character of elected representatives who are almost missing from the scene. And even if they are visible, they do so for a photo session.
    The massivity of the floods could not have been handled well as no country on earth can handle millions of people from KPK down to Sind simultaneously. The resources of army have been overstretched but still they are managing it well.
    What we need is the civil administration and their share in the relief operations. Where are city and tehsil nazims (I haven’t seen even one) and their councilors? It is they who should have been organizing and supervising the relief operations. Sadly which is not being done.
    I find media men blowing up shortcomings of relief operations out of proportion. Even one anchor lamented that government has done nothing to build the destroyed bridges. Amazing!! Bridges cannot be built overnight for God’s sake.

  4. Speaking of infrastructure, I am interested to know whether some of this disaster would have been averted had Pakistan built dams on the Indus over the last 6o years?

    Just my 2 cents!

  5. Tilsim

    @Raza

    You are absolutely right. The real issue is poor execution of the State machinery (other than PA).

    Where are the elected representatives of the people from all parties? What are they doing? Good and bad, why is the media not speaking to the MNAs and MPAs of the districts affected, shedding light on their role and holding them to account?

    Why all this focus on one individual continuously? Is highlighting his appalling shortcomings going to solve the terrorised public’s problems. Is this going to prevent similar disasters? One wants to pull one’s hair out sometimes at the media’s stance.

    Now they have briefed their western counterparts to parrot the same line.

    We need information and problem solving, not accusations.

  6. Tilsim

    Another thing to add, Zardari’s decision to not go back to Pakistan (or stay there in the first place) and the media’s inevitable stance has added to the huge sense of despondency. This will be exploited by the extremists. Crying shame.

  7. Tilism: thanks for your additions to my argument here. There is no question that President’s trip was unwise and culturally insensitive. But the crisis unfolding is immense and the diatribe against Zardari deflects the debate and dumbs it down. It is about the STATE and its lack of capacity which is a far bigger issue than one individual’s decisions.

  8. pankaj

    Well Mr Zardari can always say in his defence that since the 18 th amendment has been passed, the PM is now quite powerful and can organise and manage the flood relief work.

    Secondly and more importantly ,two and half years of PPP government are over. Now there will be more and more calls for mid term polls .

    Long and short marches will soon be launched.
    So it is better to launch Bilawal while still in power.

  9. libertarian

    Crying shame. Focusing on Zardari, fake degrees and other irrelevant issues. The Army which is trained to take care of such problem is MIA. Kayani lifting 17 people folks in his helicopter is as convincing as Bush’s “Mission Accomplished”. And India isn’t about to attack when divisions are moved to KP to take care of the problem.

    Can’t shake off the doubt an ethnic/racial angle to the response. Had the floods been centered in wealthy parts of Punjab, the response would likely have been far better coordinated by the Army.

  10. Bilal Ahmad

    Present floods are a big challenge not only because of infrastructure and human losses but also for survival of our state. Most disturbing news is about re-emergence of terrorist organizations in form of relief activities. Already government has been unable to contain them, but main problem is public support for such groups. They are utilizing the flood as opportunity to portray themselves as servants of people, and ultimately they will get support from flood affected people once they are annoyed with state for not providing them with timely relief. I believe our state has limited resources to provide relief in such calamities, but it has to fail this “terrorists’ campaign” by reaching to people and let them realize by their presence among them that despite of insufficient resources state knows about their agonies and will try to overcome these. This is war for survival of our state and democracy, and politicians should play their role. I believe President‘s presence is presently more needed inside the country than outside.

  11. S

    Apropos to the concern raised by Mr. Bilal Ahmad. The following advertisement of Jamat-ul-Dawa appeared in a mainstream Urdu newspaper. Can any of our Pakistani friends translate this:
    img440(dot)imageshack(dot)us/img440/1523/juds.jpg

    *replace (dot) with .

  12. Tilsim

    Well, of course JuD propaganda is a concern. However, what the actual propaganda or fear is and what is the reality of their ‘aid effort’ may be two different things. I wish the media would bother to put things in perspective.

    Also, why is the media not highlighting the civil society efforts – only talking about the shortcomings?

    The answer is that it wants to leave you with the impression that JuD is acting as the saviour. This forces people to become more despondent (if you are a liberal) and if you are undecided, you know who to support next time.

    Some facts and balance are critically missing.

  13. NASEER QURESHI

    I agree with Raza that our cicvil defence area is completely neglected. Our full population is left on its own. If this civil defence wass organized properly on the country base, it could have done miracles. Most of the things required for people in such a clamity come under the auspices of civil defence. I personally feel that this useless NDMA should be thrown in Arabian Sea along with its corrupt and incompetent chairman and its resources should be handed over to a civil defence authority under Army/Airforce/Navy command. It should be for the whole of Pakistan.
    Moreover, in a bigger prospective, we should not forget that US after failing to do something to harm our nuclear programme has used HAARP technology to bring flood in Pakistan.
    It would be a blessing in disguise if we master this technology and get rid of Indian Equa Bomb threats and be able to do so for our enemies. Thus we will be able to bring rains when required. And it is not dificult if a group of dedicated scientists like Dr. Qadeer Khan and Samar Mubarakmand is exclusively given this job.

  14. androidguy

    “It would be a blessing in disguise if we master this technology and get rid of Indian Equa Bomb threats and be able to do so for our enemies. Thus we will be able to bring rains when required. And it is not dificult if a group of dedicated scientists like Dr. Qadeer Khan and Samar Mubarakmand is exclusively given this job”

    Thanks, hadn’t had a laugh today so far, what with all the grim news of the sailaab everywhere.

  15. Girish

    Interesting – an internationally declared terrorist organization and one that has ostensibly been banned by the Federal Government of Pakistan itself publishes an advertisement in a national level newspaper! In its own name! And the newspaper owners are not behind bars for that?