While disasters are inevitable, death and suffering from them is not. Humans can take varied action to help lessen the risks associated with disasters. Disaster risk reduction is a term used for lessening and preventing the effects of a disaster.
The conventional assurance of external assistance once a disaster has struck is being seen to have deterred poorer counties from investing in disaster mitigation practices themselves. Arguments are now being made that post-disaster aid should be made conditional to the implementation of disaster risk reduction.
Reducing the risk of disasters brought about by climate change is another challenge which policy makers and practitioners will need to face in the coming future. Higher rainfall, changing temperatures and rising sea levels will most probably make disasters more frequent.
Disaster risk reduction in practice can imply a range of activities, including building secure houses in earthquake prone areas, putting in place early warning systems for tsunamis or for floods, and even managing food resources to help avoid famine.
Those with better access to resources, stable housing, financial fallback and higher social status are also at an advantage during times of disasters. Since the poor, particularly women, children and the elderly, are more at risk from a disaster, risk reduction activities must ensure their active involvement.
Like other South Asian countries, Pakistan continues to suffer from a plethora of natural disasters including floods, earthquakes, landslides, cyclones, and droughts. The 2005 earthquake in the NWFP and Kashmir, the cyclone-induced flooding which hit parts of Balochistan and Sindh in 2007, and the earthquake in Ziarat and Pishin in Balochistan in late 2008, are only the most recent examples.
Pakistan lies in a seismic belt and therefore suffers from frequent earthquakes of small magnitudes. There was a major earthquake in Quetta in 1935 when nearly the entire city was destroyed. From 1974 to 1990, approximately 5669 people were killed due to earthquakes across the northern areas and Balochistan. The devastation from earthquakes can be immense because of the poor quality of buildings, as became most glaring after the 2005 earthquake, when the maximum number of casualties took place due to the destruction of poorly built public buildings, including schools.
Pakistan is also among the five countries where the greatest number of people is exposed to the dangers of floods during the annual monsoons. Monsoon-induced flooding directly hits Punjab and Sindh, while hill torrents tend to affect the hilly areas of the NWFP, Balochistan and the federally administered northern areas.
Besides earthquakes and floods, drought has become an intermittent problem for the country as well. In recent years, drought is reported to have brought extensive damage to Balochistan, Sindh and Southern Punjab. Severe drought periods have affected livelihoods and pushed tens of thousands to migrate, and killed large numbers of cattle.
Historically, disaster management in Pakistan revolved around floods, primarily focusing on rescue and relief. After each disaster, the government in power thus had to incur considerable expenditure in the form of rescue, relief and rehabilitation efforts, which often result in loss of development funding that has to be diverted to meet more critical disaster related needs.
For a long time, the government had not done much in terms of preparing better for recurrent disasters. Subsequent to sporadic and ad hoc efforts to provide relief, things were generally left to the whims of nature and fate. The more recent disasters — especially the 2005 earthquake — however did lead to a paradigm shift to a risk management approach and creation of a new governmental institution specifically tasked with establishing a disaster risk management system at the federal, provincial and district levels.
Multilateral agencies like the United Nations Development Programme have been working in close collaboration with this newly created National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Among other activities, NDMA has been working to develop a course on disaster risk management and been trying to promote a number of mitigation techniques, including construction of emergency, shelters, first aid training and the plantation of the mangrove forests, a natural barrier against floods.
Nonetheless, the October 29 earthquake in Ziarat and Pishin showed that a lot of work still needs to be done before Pakistan can claim to have made much progress in terms of disaster risk reduction or even preparedness. Complaints about the inadequate distribution of relief and compensations, which had surfaced after the 2005 earthquake and the 2007 floods, were again resonating in Ziarat and Pishin. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and several other organisations undertaking relief work took note of numerous complaints in this regard. A lack of coordination between NDMA; the Frontier Constabulary and the Army; UN agencies, including its recently formed Office of Humanitarian Assistance; numerous NGOs; and the local governments of these districts remained evident.
The cost of post-disaster relief measures can be minimised if disaster risk reduction and preparedness plans are fully enforced. Yet ground realities indicate major gaps with regards to effective preparedness. Even though NDMA was established in late 2006, inductions of its required staff have just been completed and its work on the ground still leaves much to be desired.
Moreover, after the destruction caused in the NWFP in 2005, the Ministry of Housing and Works had reassigned NESPAK the task of detailed seismic hazard evaluation and formulation of recommendations for earthquake resistant design of buildings. While the federal cabinet approved these recommendations, the concerned authorities have not yet educated building engineers to implement these recommendations.
Unfortunately, the formulation of management entities or plans is just not enough to lessen the risk of disasters. Like with so many other issues, it is effective implementation of these plans that remains the thorny issue, and it must be achieved in order to really make our country a safer place.
The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org