Govt asked to improve response level to meet natural disasters

KARACHI: The government should improve its response level to effectively cope with the natural disasters while introducing inbuilt social and infrastructural inbuilt mechanisms to prevent loss to human life and economy in the shape of better preparedness and swift rescue and rehabilitation measures, suggested a report released of Sindh People’s Commission on Disaster Prevention and Management, released here at a press conference at Karachi Press Club on Thursday.

The report said with the beginning of July 2013, Pakistan completes three years of consecutive floods and there is forecast of another round of severe rains raising fears about a repeat of the devastation in the past. The need for intense preparations to respond to a possible natural disaster cannot be over emphasized since the country suffered grave losses in terms of life and property in the last three years floods. The state response to the past natural disasters has been a subject of much criticism. Characterized by delays and inadequacies, the most important factor missing is a consultative approach with the people and communities it is directed at.

Hydro-meteorological disasters may become a reality for Pakistan in coming years. According to experts, in the last 20 years 140 climate-change triggered events in Pakistan have lead to an average of 500 deaths every year and a loss of $200 million to the country’s economy. With the average global temperature rising by 2 degrees Celsius, the temperature in Pakistan has increased by 0.57 degrees Celsius. The sea level had risen by 1.2mm annually and would likely be up by 40mm the end of the century. Experts predict frequent floods as well as droughts in coming years. With several parts of the country on seismic fault-line, earthquakes are a regular too. After the 2005 earthquake in Azad Kashmir killing 75,000 people, Pakistan has experienced earthquakes of smaller magnitude causing small scale damage met by poor government response (case in point, earthquake in Balochistan, 2013, that killed 40 people and left thousands stranded for several days, due to poor infrastructure). Repeated natural disasters call for a comprehensive pluralistic-based disaster response system that incorporates disaster risk reduction and preparedness as fundamental elements, remains open to improvement, and prioritizes environmental and ecological considerations.

Following the past humanitarian emergencies, disaster response has become an important agenda for the government that has established the National Disaster Management Authority, its provincial subsidiaries, and relief and rehabilitation departments on the provincial and district level. It has also pursued a national disaster management policy and separate contingency plans for all four provinces, involving rescue and relief measures. The performance of these establishments has drawn mix reviews with a wide consensus that a long road needs to be travelled towards an effective disaster response order.

According to media reports, the NDMA is preparing a 10-year national disaster management plan and national disaster risk reduction policy. Among other areas, the policy envisages an investment of Rs92 billion with 1,800 projects involving assessment of hazards and risks; development of a multi-hazard early warning system; and identification of roles and responsibilities of the stakeholders. For provinces, it emphasizes the devolution of risk reduction functions down to the district level, apart from strengthening civil-military coordination for rescue and relief operations. Contingency plans on the provincial level have also been prepared.

Despite extensive devastation during the last floods, due to breach of embankments and the presence of private bunds, the state seems to have no policy on embankments and their use with regards to protection from floods.

During the last three years floods, the performance of the Irrigation Department has been continuously questioned, both because it was unable to maintain necessary structures to prevent destruction from floods and also because of it never had any coherent policy to respond to the fast changing hydraulic environment of the province. Its failure to maintain dykes and embankments has caused much irreparable damage to the province in the form of repeated flooding.

There have been frequent reports of massive corruption in the Irrigation Department which received billions of rupees ($234mn from the ADB and the GoS) on account of repair work of irrigation system during the last two years. In a Sindh Assembly Public Accounts Committee hearing last year, the administrative head of the Sindh Irrigation Department revealed scale of corruption and mismanagement in his department, and blatantly expressed his inability to stop these practices. The PAC found Rs 4 billion outstanding dues on account of irregularities and embezzlement in the Department. Water resources of the province stand dried up because of frequent water thefts by the powerful abetted by the Irrigation Department.

There has been no action on the part of the government of Sindh or the Irrigation Department to hold the concerned officials responsible after the Supreme Court’s inquiry into the breaches in embankments during the 2010 floods. During a recent hearing, a fake certificate with reference to the Flood Commission Report was presented by the Irrigation Secretary Sindh to the Supreme Court bench. The SC also noted lack of implementation of the Floods Commission Report.

The performance of the government in the recent crisis of the 2012 floods and the measles outbreak in Sindh does not inspire much confidence in its ability to respond to disasters despite repeat experiences of the 2010 and 2011 floods. Notwithstanding the claims of preparedness by the state, the 2012 floods took 258 lives and affected almost 3,200,000 people of the province of Sindh. Two hundred thousand houses were completely destroyed and over 9,000 cattles were lost.

The government has made no effort to intervene in the built environment following the last three years floods, despite repeat reminders of the vulnerability to natural disasters, especially floods and earthquake. Most of the houses and government buildings across the country are made on the pattern of adobe construction (comprising single storey structures with adobe masonry walls and timber roofs with mud covering). These structures are vulnerable to earthquake and floods and have suffered severe damages during floods leading to shelter crisis.

The houses made by the government and the NGOs following the floods did follow the requirements of disaster proof structuring to some extent. However, the effectiveness of this measure came into question when it emerged that majority of the 183,000 houses damaged in floods 2012 in Balochistan were the ones that were reconstructed following the 2010 floods on DRR basis. Still, the need for a policy for ensuring that the overall built environment is developed on the premises of disaster resilience cannot be emphasized enough.

It was recommended that the province’s disaster response structure needs a revisit. Apart from shedding deficits in design and structures, it is very important to base it on a pro-people premise, involving community participation and contribution. For this purpose, the province of Sindh needs to broaden current disaster management constituency engaging more non-traditional actors in disaster management policy-making and implementation.

The government should invest in developing of localised knowledge on disaster and create connection between the bodies of knowledge in making policies and planning with regards to disaster response and risk reduction.

Disaster risk reduction needs to be made a national and a local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation. A system of identifying, assessing, and monitoring disaster risks and enhancing early warning needs to be pursued. At the same time, underlying factors causing and aggravating disasters need to be reduced too.