Disaster and management-By I.A. Rehman

THE people of Pakistan are living under double jeopardy. On the one hand, the scale of disasters caused by terrorists is escalating and, on the other, the management of emergencies is becoming more and more disastrous.

The havoc caused by last Saturday’s blast at Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel is truly colossal. Besides resulting in the huge loss of life and property, it led to an enormous erosion of the people’s confidence in the government’s capacity to deal with terrorist attacks and their aftermath. As a perceptive analyst has pointed out, in view of the mounting evidence of the authorities’ inability to handle terrorists, the latter’s attacks are likely to increase in terms of both numbers and the scale of devastation.

Quite a few ominous developments have been reported since the Islamabad disaster. The death of the Czech envoy has raised Pakistan’s rating as a hazardous assignment and foreign governments could downgrade their diplomatic relations with Islamabad. An important airline has suspended its flights to and from Pakistan and another airline had done so earlier. An IMF mission, on whose favourable report the managers of national finance were perhaps banking, is reported to have flown back.

Hopes of foreign investors’ coming to this country can hardly be sustained. The same can be said about the academics and professional experts that Pakistan might have been wooing. And, thanks to our sports czars’ decision to compete with the terrorists in demolishing whatever credit we had in the world of cricket, hockey and boxing, Pakistan’s isolation in the sports arena is nearly complete.

The terrorists’ demonstration of their ability to launch a massive attack on the federal seat of power comes after their unprecedented gains in the tribal areas allegedly administered by the federal government and their increasingly bold forays into the so-called settled districts of the Frontier province.

The blowing up of a grid station in Swat has multiplied the misery of its population many times over. Estimates of the time repairs may take vary from two to six months. What will happen to the people during a long blackout can only be imagined.

The abduction of the Afghan ambassador in Peshawar is likely to further deplete the morale of its citizens and their even more demoralised guardians. Now the Frontier governor has disclosed that terrorist groups are getting stronger in Punjab and that Punjab is the breeding ground for terrorist leaders and cadres, and not Fata as Islamabad’s Al Qaeda watchers are insinuating, as if we have been unaware of Punjab’s pioneering role in fostering terrorist outfits.

This grim scenario assumes more sinister dimensions if one takes into account the poverty of the disaster managers. Everything related to internal security appears to be a one-man show. However shrewd or gifted the present lynchpin of the interior establishment may be, the impression that the safety and security of the entire population depends upon him breeds more apprehension than trust.One has not heard of the Disaster Management Authority since it evinced some interest in the disturbances in Sindh following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination eight months ago. One hopes this body’s mandate is not limited to natural calamities and that it has something to do in the event of man-made disasters too. Further, it is time the security establishment tried to allay the people’s fears and anxieties by revealing its disaster management mechanisms and offering reasons for their claim to public trust in their effectiveness.

Reports that fire-fighting and rescue operations at the Marriott were not up to the mark, that some equipment needed for lifesaving tasks was not available or that what was available could not be efficiently used for lack of duly trained personnel are bound to fuel anxiety. It is possible that such reports are exaggerated and do not do justice to the functionaries concerned. But anyone who can recall the sufferings of the victims of the 2005 earthquake, or of the recent floods in Balochistan or of the floods in Sindh some years earlier will not be able to dismiss these reports altogether.

The agonising question that more skilled and better equipped rescue teams might have saved a few more lives will not go away easily. The fact is that our management of calamities has, more often than not, been pathetic and that there are dangerous deficiencies in both equipment and skills.

This was amply borne out at a recent high-profile conference at Karachi’s Aga Khan Medical University that received due attention neither from officialdom nor the media. Among the many inputs on the subject of managing disasters and injuries caused on roads and in closed environments, eminent surgeon Rasheed Jumma (now federal director-general of health) spoke of his plan to develop pre-hospital medical services of the kind that he said might have saved the lives of Princess Diana and Murtaza Bhutto, and the chief of Punjab’s Rescue 1122 service explained how this initiative is one of the best things to have happened in the province over the past many years.

Here are ideas that need to be adopted and further developed by the authorities responsible for saving lives and mitigating the suffering of disaster victims.

Despite the fact that we have been at the mercy of terrorists for quite some time, precautious against untoward emergencies in hotels, apartment blocks and offices do not go beyond installing a few fire extinguishers (often untested and unserviceable) here and there and giving warnings against the use of elevators in the event of fire.

Nobody has been told what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Even proper alarm systems have not been thought of. Suppose an alarm system had been activated the moment the truck carrying explosives exploded at Marriott, would it have made the situation worse or could it have saved some of the victims from death and injury? The point is that not only security personnel but the whole population should be instructed and drilled in safety measures when under attack.

The exposure of shortcomings in disaster management should have a sobering effect on the crazy war-mongers who are unfortunately receiving unmerited respect in the media. Some of them want to take on the forces that are armed with the deadliest weapons of mass destruction and some others talk of a nuclear conflict as if that would be a repetition of the 1965 encounter in the Rann of Kutch.

And this while we cannot cope with a blast at a hotel! A little reflection on this matter will lead to the need to revisit the puerile theory of safety regarding nuclear capability and to the realisation of the prohibitive cost of keeping a nuclear arsenal that every sane person hopes will never be used.

Source: Daily Dawn, 25/9/2008

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