I Opyne

Disastrous Response

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Flood victims receive food handouts from the army in Jafarabad district in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. (Rizwan Saeed /Reuters)

Proponents of Global Warming have been raising alarms for some time now: rising global temperatures have the power to alter monsoon rain patterns. The recent floods that engulfed Northern Pakistan have in a way affirmed the threat of weather aberration, and also spelled out its consequences. According to the UNICEF, around 3 million people have been affected just in Northern Pakistan, with 1400 dead.

After the devastating earthquake of 2005, the National Disaster Management Committee (NDMC) was formed to deal with such situations. The NDMC is headed by the Prime Minister and it implements its decisions through the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) which is responsible for coordination between different stakeholders, including the Ministry of Defense and the Provincial Governments.

The recent floods were one of the first major tests for the NDMA. One can cite the shortage of resources and the intensity of the floods as valid reasons for the less than adequate response, but NDMA was also not able to fully utilize the resources that were available in the country. For instance, consider the efforts undertaken to rescue marooned survivors. These survivors were stranded on standing structures such as buildings or electricity poles. Time is off the essence in such situations as these structures are likely to give way due to the dilution of their foundations. Helicopters provide the quickest means of rescue in such instances. But as stated in NDMA’s flood update of 30th of July 2010, only 21 helicopters were deployed in the affected areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As seen in media reports from the areas, this number was clearly inadequate given the scale and spread of this calamity. This weakness still remains as the efforts move into the next phase; as upper Swat and Kohistan are cut off from the rest of the country because of the total destruction of their road infrastructure.  More than 350,000 people need supplies for mere survival, and helicopters remain the only viable and efficient way of making these deliveries. But the August 1st update from NDMA, states that only 30 helicopters were engaged in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, of which merely 20 belonged to Pakistan Army.

This small number of helicopters would have been acceptable had it been the case that these were all the helicopters that could be spared in the country. But according to statistics from www.pakistanaviation.com , in 2006, Pakistan Army had a total of 143 helicopters of which at least 100 are of the sort that can be used for these operations. If the only helicopter at the disposal of Punjab Government can make the rounds at this hour of need, then surely Pakistan Army could spare more than just 20 helicopters.  It is mindboggling to even think of a valid excuse for this underutilization, especially when the cost of it is measured in terms of human lives.

There also is a relative sense of apathy amongst un-affected Pakistanis when it comes to donations for relief efforts. This is a sharp contrast to the outpouring of human sympathy after the 2005 Earthquake. In my opinion, a major catalyst in that united and concerted effort was the focused and dedicated reporting from our electronic media. Televised stories of survival and tragedy mobilized the whole nation into action; the urgent needs of the affected areas became breaking news, and the actions of volunteers across the country were directed by streaming information from TV News channels.

But in the present situation, it was shocking to see that none of the mainstream Urdu news channels interrupted their regular programming to cover the initial phase of this disaster. It was also perplexing to note that this lack of focus came right after the non-stop coverage of the Air Blue plane crash, an event that is dwarfed in magnitude by the calamity brought about by these floods. Some quarters are reporting that alerts from the Pakistan Meteorological Department were not given due coverage by the media because of the extensive focus on the plane crash.

It also wasn’t the case that the competing news items were of this much significance, for instance, on the 31st of August, when the DG of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was holding a press conference; none of the mainstream Urdu News Channels chose to broadcast it live. In its stead there were talk shows lamenting the President’s upcoming visit to the UK and believe it or not, comedy shows on two channels. Similarly the first post disaster press conference of the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was broadcasted live by only one of the main channels.  The sole exception in the initial phase of the flooding was a Pashto News Channel, noticeably many of its online callers lamented this apathy from the Urdu media.

The role of the Government was also very weak; the main alibi has been that they weren’t prepared for the magnitude of this flood. Even if we acknowledge that the intensity of the floods caught the Government off guard, still the post-realization reaction left a lot to be desired. For instance; while the Prime Minister declared a day of mourning because of the plane crash, a similar acknowledgement was not given to the inundation of whole cities and towns. Similarly, the decision of the President to not to cancel his trip to Europe, stands in a sharp contrast to the post-earthquake involvement of “General” Pervez Musharaf. Furthermore, leadership was desperately required in the ensuing chaos in the affected areas, but most elected officials from those areas were not present in their constituencies.

It is also important to note that the lack of preparation was not only relative to the intensity of the floods. As the Annual Report of NDMA for 2009 suggests, this agency that is responsible for the coordination of our response to disasters was given a very low priority in financial allocations as well as disbursements. NDMA apparently had to rely a lot on donor money while meeting the requirements of the Risk Management Framework, there are also instances where the NDMA was not disbursed funds that were approved by the Prime Minister and the NDMC.

Global warming is a phenomenon that will probably last the lifetime of most of us living today. This means that consequent disasters such as this one are very likely to occur again in the near future. If our present response means anything, then it is that we are unprepared for such a calamity. The destruction caused by these disasters is much more than the dreaded bombing campaigns from our neighboring countries. If we can dedicate Rs. 342 Billion of our budget as a defense from those human threats, then for sure we cannot leave the defense against these natural threats to the mercy of international donors.

An edited version appeared in The News on 7th of August 2010


Written by Imran Khan

November 11, 2010 at 12:34 pm

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