Disaster and Response | I.A. Rehman

LAST Monday’s earthquake, the severest in this country’s history, has evoked mixed feelings of relief, sorrow and apprehension among the people.

The feeling of relief is justified by the realisation that the jolt could have caused much greater havoc if its epicentre had been closer to big cities and less deep. Yet the loss of several hundred lives and the large-scale damage to property is a serious matter. And the nation is unsure whether the response to the fresh disaster will be adequate and if Pakistan is capable of meeting the challenge of lying across one of the earth’s most dangerous fault lines.

The first question the people are rightly asking is whether the lessons of the 2005 mega disaster have made the state response to Monday’s earthquake more efficient.

One of the critical lessons of the 2005 catastrophe was the urgency of establishing reliable communication links with all parts of the country, particularly the remote areas. It was said that many lives could have been saved if the ordeal of the people affected had been communicated in time to rescue and aid organisations. There was also much talk of creating a network of community-managed FM radio stations. The idea was soon forgotten.

Although the scale of devastation this time is much lower than in 2005, the need for a reasonably efficient communication system to facilitate relief operations is manifest, especially because Pakistan must prepare for serious jolts in future that many an expert is predicting.

While the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (Erra) and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) may have reason to take pride in their large establishments, operational plans and websites, they do not appear to have paid due attention to the points raised by civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists regarding their track record.

For instance, the CSOs have consistently questioned the policy of maintaining two parallel organisations, Erra and NDMA for a single task. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 2005 disaster, many questions were asked about the utilisation of the huge funds Pakistan had received from international donors. It is alleged that lack of clarity regarding division of labour between Erra, the NDMA and their provincial centres held up or delayed the reconstruction of schools that were destroyed 10 years ago in the Balakot area. Numerous complaints have been made about the confusion as to who should be responsible for enforcing the building codes. Similar complaints have been made by the people in Muzaffarabad, Bagh and other areas in Azad Kashmir.

It has been vigorously argued that, following the 18th Amendment, the federal government must ensure devolution of authority and allocation of funds not only to the provincial disaster management authorities but also to their district-level units. Both Erra and the NDMA have been criticised for failure to focus on the relief and rehabilitation needs of women and girls and those who were permanently disabled in 2005. The logic in all these comments is that the damage caused by a natural calamity must not be aggravated by human folly; the measures chosen to meet the present crisis must avoid the mistakes of the past.

It is possible that the authorities consider civil society’s censure overly emotional or based on insufficient knowledge of the way the administrative giants work but there is no harm in listening to what the disaster affected have been saying for a whole decade. The country stands to gain much from cooperation between the state agencies and civil society. This will also raise the level of transparency as lack of it causes much avoidable frustration and doubts about not only the state’s efficiency but its bona fides as well.

The new disaster has also highlighted the growing imbalance in the civil-military relationship. The government has once again been found lagging behind the army in reaching out to the victims. The prime minister’s absence from the country should not have paralysed the whole cabinet and bureaucracy. Is there no mechanism for an immediate response to emergencies of which natural calamity is only one form? Or is everything to be done by the prime minister? The first reports of casualties came from the ISPR. Why couldn’t the commissioners and the district coordination officers give out information earlier than they did? If civilian authorities have no access to remote areas hit by the earthquake the reason must be made public.

The government should not be unaware of the kind of signals sent out by the army’s ability to take the lead in dealing with all kinds of difficulties, from rescuing tourists trapped in snowbound Naran to earthquake havoc. The implications of the army chief’s directive to the troops to jump into rescue operations without waiting for any instructions (or request) are pretty clear.

Finally, some thought should be given to the high vulnerability level in disaster situations of the poor and underdeveloped sections of society. These people suffer more than others because their dwellings are not strong enough to withstand earth tremors or the rush of floodwaters. Many of them live in unsafe hovels because they do not have the means to repair the dilapidated structures. And they might not have even heard of building codes.

What this means is that the incomes and the standard of living of a large number of Pakistanis are too low to enable them to provide for security against nature’s fury. Apart from calling for special efforts for the economic uplift of the poorest people, this state of affairs offers yet another reason for building up local government institutions as an effective administrative tier at the base level. No agency at the higher level can keep an eye on unsafe houses or provide for emergency needs, including a reliable communication system, other than union councils and municipal wards. A strong link between the local bodies and the national/provincial disaster management agencies should help in reducing the scale of losses caused by natural disasters.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2015

Source: http://www.dawn.com/news/1216005/disaster-and-response

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