Our reaction to the floods

Raza Rumi

Thousands are dead and injured and millions are displaced due to the floods. The national reaction to this calamitous situation has been that the president should have cancelled his visit to the UK. The president too has not been sagacious. But the debate is frivolous and sidetracks the real issue: our sheer lack of preparedness for natural disasters and emergency management.

Five years ago, a massive-earthquake rocked Pakistan. Later, several institutions such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) were set up to deal with natural calamities. While it would be unfair to critique the good work done by the NDMA, it is clear that centralised authorities and relief machinery are of little use in a populous, diverse country like Pakistan.

In the last five years, as the recent floods indicate, the state has done little to galvanise and decentralise disaster preparedness and management. Between 2005 and 2010, the magnitude of natural disasters was not large enough to expose the inherent weaknesses of the emergency infrastructure. As before, Pakistanis have come forward and an unprecedented civic activism and volunteerism can be seen in reaching out to victims of the floods across the country.

Central to our predicament is the decline and, in some instances, the collapse of institutions. At the provincial and district levels, the state machinery is reactive and when faced with a colossal disaster it crumbles. This is not limited to government institutions. Take the case of civil defence: it remains a neglected arena with little funding, mobilisation and leadership.

This time monsoon warnings were given much earlier. True that Pakistan is passing through a terrible phase and the state is on the defensive but at the local level arrangements could have been made with the cooperation of the citizenry to prevent some of the deaths that were caused by the floods. Similarly, the advance warning system was hardly effective anywhere.

It is sad to see the mainstream media’s obsession with Asif Ali Zardari, and how the Centre-Punjab tussle is eating away both airtime and newsprint. A thorough debate could have resulted out of this mess but rarely does it happen. Had the post-eighteenth amendment president stayed in the country would the effects of the natural disaster been any different?

There is little discussion on the environmental damage caused by decades of wanton development. We are thoroughly unprepared for climate change mitigation and adaptation — a national policy is being framed now when several countries have moved ahead. We have packed up local governments and provincialised planning and development functions of districts and towns. How can we be serious about instilling local capacities when we are not committed to effective, accountable local governance? National cells and authorities are not enough. Powers, functions and capacities to manage disasters should devolve and an appropriate policy framework be redefined. Otherwise, the lives of Pakistanis will remain vulnerable to disasters.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2010.

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