Sep 1, 2010

Damage assessment

Aid pledges do not seem to materialise due to lack of scientific assessment of destruction

By Abid Qaiyum Suleri

One quarter of Pakistan's land is inundated, affecting 20 million people who lost their dear ones, livelihoods, shelter, and life savings (often in the form of livestock). The flood has already destroyed up to 70 percent roads and bridges in 49 worst-affected districts. Paddy crop in Upper Sindh is completely washed away while cotton crop in Punjab and sugarcane crop in Pakhtoonkhwa is no safe either. Almost one million tons of stored wheat in most of the flood affected areas has been damaged.

However, the current losses by floods are just a tip of the iceberg as people's lives, country's economy, food security, and political stability may face even worst challenges in coming weeks and months. Providing clean drinking water and food to flood survivors is a daunting task, but even greater challenge is to control spread of infectious diseases, especially cholera, diarrohea, gastro, and skin diseases in the camps mainly due to lack of medicines, clean water and sanitation facilities. People have lost most of their livestock and the remaining may die due to lack of feed, water, and veterinary care.

Aid pledges, especially cash pledges, do not seem to materialise due to lack of any scientific assessment of damage as well as the increasingly reducing credibility of our rulers. However, to deliver whatever is being received in these challenging times needs both the institutions as well as infrastructure to reach the affected. Many roads are inundated or damaged, bridges washed away, power lines damaged and there are many areas where the only access is through mules or through helicopters.

On the institutional side, in principle, the state of Pakistan does have an agency in place at the central level to cope with disasters, i.e. the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which is housed in the Prime Minister Secretariat with provincial branches. However, NDMA has no legal status. The Ordinance 2006 under which the NDMA was constituted has already lapsed several months back. Re-promulgation of the lapsed Ordinance is also no more possible as the Constitution of Pakistan after the recent 18th Amendment prevents the government from re-promulgating an ordinance more than once.

Another institutional challenge is the weak decentralised local administration that turned even weaker since the tenure of local governments came to an end last year. Currently, administrators from the state bureaucracy are running the local administration and thus, there is no room for people' say in the delivery of emergency aid at the local level.

In order to improve coordination and to give credibility to its scandal-hit government, the Prime Minister of Pakistan has tried to set up three different commissions in six days; a committee constituted for the complete assessment of damage and, especially distribution of relief goods in Punjab was notified but is non functional (13th August); a "clean commission" comprising honest and credible Pakistanis was publicly announced but not officially notified (14th August); and a supervisory committee on the NDMA, the National Oversight Disaster Management Council (19th August) is a non-legal entity right now. Thus, none of those commissions are functional so far. However, NDMA, despite its institutional and structural limitations, is coordinating the relief efforts with Pakistan army and rangers and UN agencies. NDMA is also providing basic information about floods, list of relief items needed, and reports damage on daily basis.

On the side of international donors, links established during the 2005 earthquake provide the essential network this time as well. Focal point of coordination is the Pakistan branch of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Civil society organisations that got organised as Joint Action Committee (JAC) during earthquake disaster of 2005 do not seem to be well-coordinated this time. One of the reasons is the enormous geographical spread of the floods that has affected all the provinces. Most of the non-governmental organisations are either thinly spread or focusing on relief activities in their base districts.

Many of these organisations are collecting donations as well as relief items in kind. Some of them have adapted various relief camps established by district administrations and are taking care of supply of food and medicines in these camps. Others are simply distributing truck loads of relief items in flood affected areas among flood survivors. Some (especially in non flood-affected districts) are handing over their collection to other agencies such as Edhi Foundation or to the WFP. International non-governmental humanitarian organisations are also actively working in various districts where they have established relief camps.

Within Pakistan, individual philanthropists, various professional bodies, chambers of commerce and industries, as well as the corporate sector are donating money and providing relief goods to the flood-affected areas. As a matter of fact, this solidarity within Pakistan goes almost unnoticed in the international reporting. Usually, they take a truck load of relief items and distribute it among flood survivors. Collection sites for donations in kind as well as cash have been established by various governmental as well as non-governmental organisations. The Pakistan media is also playing a positive role in fund collection. Almost all the TV channels in Pakistan are running special flood transmission where various celebrities make appeals for donations and collect funds.

Unfortunately, many of the efforts are not very well coordinated and most of the relief providers have a tendency to work in their self-created spaces. Despite the fact that NDMA has circulated a list of relief items, many of these relief providers (especially civil society groups) are either not aware of this list or simply forward whatever they receive in terms of donations. It is also noticed that camps established along accessible roads are getting more relief goods and camps in remote areas are often getting ignored. It is a challenge to further understand and analyse such processes of transmitting aid from international and national donators through networks of agencies, the processes of defining relief needs and priorities, and the geographical as well as 'urgency' reach of these endeavours.

Rehabilitation of flood damage may take 3-4 years and most of the donors seem to wait for a rehabilitation plan based on independent damage assessment. Image of government, reports of corruption in earthquake donations, and weak institutional arrangement for disaster management can also affect donor's response.

Leaving the task of demarcation of destroyed properties and inundated agricultural land to "patwaris" of revenue department would be a major blunder. Unlike establishing a non functional "overview commission" at federal level, the government should seriously set up district level commissions comprising local nobilities, representatives of media, civil society, and district officials. Such commission would not only ensure accurate damage assessment but would also bring transparency and coordination in distribution of need based aid.

Government may not compensate for losses due to natural and man-made disasters, but can certainly compensate for the loss of credibility by involving credible people in aid delivery and monitoring mechanism at the local level.

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