The devastating floods of August 2010, hit upper Swat at a time when the area was still reeling back from the aftermath of the war against the Taliban. With major bridges swept away Kalam, Bahrain and other areas are cut off from the rest of the country. For other flood affected areas, the receding waters resulted in an inflow of relief goods, or at least the hope for them. But for Upper Swat, the destruction of land routes means that thousands of people are cut off from all logistical supplies, including food and medicine. In such a situation helicopters provide the only efficient way of supplying these people with relief goods.
The inventory of helicopters in Pakistan becomes crucial in such a situation. According to globalsecurity.org, for 2010, Pakistan’s Army Aviation has around 90, while the Air Force has 23 helicopters that could be used for these operations. Statistics from www.pakistanaviation.com , that are a bit dated, state that in 2005 the Navy had a total of 16 helicopters that could contribute to rescue and relief activities. Add to that around 10 helicopters that could be mustered from the civilian fleet, and one gets to a round total of around 140 helicopters that could be used in these flood relief efforts, and are vital to the survival of the trapped people of Upper Swat.
So how has the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) managed to utilize this important resource? Given the fact that bad weather has severely hampered flying conditions for helicopters, one would expect the Authority to make the most of the clear weather by maximizing the number of helicopters involved in these efforts. But, as per the update from NDMA for 27th Aug 2010, one is shocked to see that despite being well in to a month of relief efforts, and despite the precariousness of the situation in upper Swat, the total helicopters deployed all over Pakistan were 63, of which only 25 were assigned to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA.
I must also say that this present number of helicopters is a sharp increase from the total that was deployed in the initial phases. For instance, on the 30th of July, when flood waters had engulfed Nowshera, only 21 helicopters were deployed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, whereas the overall inventory as well as later day deployment, shows that more helicopters could have been sent to the affected areas, where they were desperately needed to save stranded survivors.
An interesting spike in these deployments come on the 9th of August, the spike is so sudden that it almost comes across as a mistake of data entry. On that day, the total number of helicopters was reported to be 76, with Sindh getting 36. This was the day that water levels rose to a dangerous level at the Sukkur Barrage, and areas surrounding Sukkur City were inundated. This surge in the number of helicopters is completely understandable as a response to these changes. The question then arises that why were these 28 extra helicopters not utilized before? And a related question to that would be the absence of these helicopters on the next day, i.e. the 10th of August, when the total number again fell to 44.
Another really perplexing fact is that the number of deployed helicopters, includes 19 American, 3 from the UAE and 4 from the Afghan Army. This leaves the Pakistani contribution to this very Pakistani relief mission at around 40 helicopters, approximately 30% of its deployment capacity!
The recent tirades of Mian Iftikhar Hussain, that were aimed at the Federal Government highlighted this lack of helicopters for operations within the province. Media report from Upper Swat, show frustrated locals who are lamenting the lethargy shown by the Provincial Government in arranging relief supplies. The few helicopters that are assigned are not enough to meet the demands of the trapped population as tons are required to meet their needs. Make shift boats and overloaded pullies are the only way to ferry goods across the river, which has resulted in the loss of property as well as life for many of those who are taking the risk.
To top it off, the Provincial Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has recently received a bill of Rs. 20 million from the Army, as charges for these helicopter operations. While this might be a normal procedure, one has to consider the fact that these are not normal times. The Provincial Government, has already taken Rs. 17 Billion off of its Annual Development Programme, to be diverted towards flood relief activities. In that context, Rs. 20 Million means; tents, water, medicine and other necessities for people struggling for their very life, and this amount can surely help many of them. The same is true for all the other provincial Governments; provincial budgets have become crucial life lines in this disaster. Therefore, these helicopter bills and other military related expenditures should be adjusted into the Rs. 442 Billion strong military budget, which is also a resource that needs to be tapped into for flood relief.
This catastrophe is a test for the present democratic government, and as per the discussion in the street, the verdict of the performance of the present government is often extended to a verdict on the viability of democracy in Pakistan.
While one can understand the resource constraints that are plaguing these efforts, but, the underutilization of available resources is a negligence who’s cost is measured in human life and suffering. It’s the responsibility of the Government to make the most of the resources that it has at hand, the bewilderment and disappointment with foreign apathy is something that should ideally come after that.