Disaster management – which way now?

Raza Rumi

When the earthquake hit us on the morning of 8th October 2005, we said that the disaster caught us with our pants down. The mini disasters of Cyclone Yemyin in 2007, the Ziarat earthquake in 2008 and the presently unfolding mega disaster suggest that we never bothered to pull our pants up and are continuously trying to cover our nether regions with Post-It stickers. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was launched in 2007 with a lot of fanfare but a quick look at the (recently lapsed) National Disaster Management Ordinance tells us that it is another toothless tiger whose job is to ‘coordinate’ among its provincial, regional and district-level counterparts. Now, we are a very funny nation. When it comes to taking responsibility for public, we quickly don our ‘federal’ garb and declare that the centre cannot interfere in a job that is primarily provincial/local. Such commitment to federalism, alas, is never forthcoming when it comes to resource exploitation, but that is another story.

NDMA’s mandate can perhaps be classified into three categories: mainstreaming risk-reduction in development programmes, overseeing contingency planning, and coordinating response to disasters.

Before the media promotes NDMA over Zardari and fake-degree holders, as being chiefly responsible for all our woes, it would be pertinent to look at the organization’s capacities and powers. After its establishment, a retired army official was appointed as its head. It took a while before the consultants hired by the United Nations could come up with an organizational structure. But NDMA could not attract the best of professionals chiefly for the work environment. This resulted in NDMA ending up mostly, with pen-pushers.
It must be admitted that the rainfall pattern has been erratic this year as the number of cloudbursts – clouds travelling and spewing water along the delta, rather than travelling traverse to the river bed- was unprecedented. This does not however, absolve our public planners of ignoring the worst-case scenario, a negligence the price of which we are paying now. One is flabbergasted at the attitude of our media, think-tanks and civil society organizations. The sources of weather information on which NDMA has had to rely are accessible to everybody. How is it that not a single TV talk show, newspaper column, or letters to editor establish a debate that would aim at alerting the decision makers? Perhaps we are all too busy in rejoicing over the fake degrees? The media has reported a number of minor inactions that would perhaps have mitigated the impact of floods, which include the institutional squabbles over whose job it was to de-silt the pond area of Taunsa barrage or the reason behind the shabby condition of flood protection bunds in Sindh. NDMA has no formal authority or magic wand to make the line departments work with efficacy. One account however, on which NDMA as well as the whole nation needs to share the blame, is our national failure to make these disasters everybody’s business.

The present devastation, though tragic in consequences and incredibly vast in scale, is not as complex as the 2005 earthquake. There is no lack of baseline information; no national security-related issues of access to the affected areas and no threat of the winter cold looming around the corner. The fear is that after the water recedes, people will undertake spontaneous recovery, recreating the same hazards that devastated them in the first place. The need is to mainstream risk-reduction in the reconstruction process. Another important task to be done is to carry out a post-facto analysis of what acts of omission and commission exacerbated the preventable damage during the current disaster. A punitive inquisition is not being recommended here, but a technical and objective analysis of the events, by experts who have the requisite expertise. Before anyone starts suggesting such a route, I beg to spare the senior judiciary from heading an inquiry commission – they have other important things to deal with, such as clearing the backlog of thousands of cases pending before them. The findings of the technical inquiry should form the basis of a national disaster risk management policy, a paradigm which sadly enough, does not exist in this country.

The NDMA also needs to be taken seriously by senior decision makers. Its capacity should be strengthened and the organization decentralized through investing financial resources and deputing able, willing and energetic officers to it. Similarly, the bleak situation with the provincial DMAs needs urgent attention. Punjab does not have a provincial disaster management authority, Sindh and KP are better led but without powers or resources; and Balochistan has seen more PDMA heads pass on the torch than prime ministers in the early days of Pakistan – an achievement in itself.

The mandate of national, provincial and district entities needs to be clarified and a clear line of authority and responsibility established. The relevant officials need to be empowered to take action rather than shroud their work in the Trojan Horse word of ‘coordination’. The present flood offers an opportunity to pull our pants up, or admit that the ‘king has no clothes’ and needs some. The least that can be done, without colossal expense to the exchequer, is to improve the information management system so that the hazards, early warnings, capacities, resources and gaps are known to everybody and any preparedness or risk reduction work is done based on the evidence generated from information, as opposed to quixotic, imaginary scenarios.

Raza Rumi is a writer & policy expert based in Lahore Email: razarumi@gmail.com

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Disaster management – which way now?

  1. Mansoor Khalid

    Such disasters need huge revenue to cope with and Pakistan’s economy was already shaken by the militancy. We should be thankful to the international community for coming forward and helping us out.

  2. Hameed

    The government and local clerics refused to shelter around 500 flood-affected families belonging to the Ahmadiya community in South Punjab’s relief camps. Not only that, the government also did not send relief goods to the flood-hit areas belonging to the Ahmadiya community, The Express Tribune has learnt during a visit to the devastated Punjab districts of Muzaffargarh, Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur.

    Link: tribune.com.pk/story/40435/the-politics-of- relief-aliens-in-their-own-land/

  3. Blunt truth

    In January 2007, a three day International Conference on Disaster Management was organized at Jinnah Convention centre Islamabad. Billions were spent for travel of international expertise, their stay and many fancy presentations were made. Guidelines for emergency response were also formulated. Medical Corps of military had organized the conference. I wonder if it has been useful in managing this disaster…?

  4. Farukh Sarwar

    It is very rightly said that early warning systems are necessary these days; the uncertainty of weather and climate change is resulting in natural calamities that can only be tackled by sound management and planning.

  5. Pingback: Disaster management – which way now? - BlogOn.pk

  6. Razaq Chaudry

    Pakistan is unfortunately going through worst period of its history. Nothing is going right for it, terrorism, lack of governance, corruption, poverty and now this natural disaster. In less than 5 years Pakistan has faced second major natural disaster. Recent Floods have exposed the glaring weaknesses of Disaster management in Pakistan, where emergency management institutions are still in infancy stage. Pakistan is located in a region that is prone to a number of natural disasters. Due to its diverse range of terrain, the country is susceptible to wide-ranging hazards from droughts to floods to earthquakes to cyclones. Pakistan has been suffering from a major drought for the last four years, which is unfortunately continuing with varying degrees all over the country. With the exception of drought years, Pakistan has suffered almost every year from floods as monsoon rains Cause Rivers to overflow their banks. Almost all of Pakistan regularly experiences earthquakes ranging from moderate to severe in intensity. In addition, the coastal areas of the country are prone to cyclones.
    There is no comprehensive, integrated disaster management policy at the national level, and the country also lacks a proper system for disaster prevention and preparedness. Such a system could ensure effective mitigation and greatly reduce the loss of life and material in case of natural disasters. Disaster management is unfortunately seen as the provision of relief rather than the management of all phases of a disaster situation or long-term management of risk. The situation strongly advocates the need for a disaster management structure, a comprehensive preparedness and mitigation strategy, as well as a mitigation policy in order to better manage and coordinate activities of the various line ministries and departments and civil society.
    There is also a need for research on traditional and current coping mechanisms and on sustainable community approaches to disaster reduction. Crisis management – planning and action Contingency planning.
    Disaster management is an enormous task. Disasters are not confined to any particular location; neither do they disappear as quickly as they appear. To understand we must know that, Disaster management is;
    • More than just response and relief (i.e., it assumes a more proactive approach)
    • A systematic process (i.e., is based on the key management principles of planning, organizing, and leading which includes coordinating and controlling)
    • Essential to reduce the negative impact or consequences of adverse events (i.e., disasters cannot always be prevented, but the adverse effects can be minimized)
    • A system with many components like early warning, Mitigation, Preparedness, Rehabilitation and transition.
    To articulate the concept of disaster management, we must distinguish between emergency and disaster situations, identify and describe the types of natural and human-caused disasters, list and describe the main hazards where Pakistan is vulnerable, and identify and describe the implications of such disasters on people and the environments.
    Disaster management is a cyclical process; the end of one phase is the beginning of another, although one phase of the cycle does not necessarily have to be completed in order for the next to take place. Often several phases are taking place concurrently. Timely decision made during each phase results in greater preparedness, better warnings, reduced vulnerability and/or the prevention of future disasters. The complete disaster management cycle includes the shaping of public policies and plans that either addresses the causes of disasters or mitigates their effects on people, property, and infrastructure.
    Pakistan unfortunately has not developed a proper infrastructure for emergency management. There is no institution for emergency management education at schools, colleges or university level. The newly formed NDMA is still trying to find a direction and mainly training their newly appointed staff through short term courses, seminars and workshops. I would not blame NDMA for their role in recent crisis as the recent catastrophe would have overwhelmed even most advanced and resourced emergency management structure. The floods came on the heals of 2005 earthquake which is still in recovery phase, the political support diminishes as the first impact of a disaster is over. But I feel we have to take Emergency management more seriously and policies have to focus more on saving lives than saving political support. We must concentrate on preparing for next disaster by educating public about disasters, preparing contingency plans, evaluating vulnerabilities, placing resources according to vulnerable areas, defining command structures, writing SOPs and last but not the least, establishing an institute for educating emergency management professionals.
    Razaq Chaudry, CEM
    MS Crisis and Emergency Management (USA)