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Archive for the ‘Flood Relief’ Category

Missing Helicopters

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Residents scramble for water bottles dropped from a Pakistan Air force helicopter in the aftermath of the floods. Image Credit: Getty

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.

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Written by Imran Khan

November 11, 2010 at 6:01 pm

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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