Sep 5, 2010

Disaster management

The path ahead

Interim solutions have to be offered to the local population to be able to earn a living for the family

By Irfan Mufti

The worst ever disaster in Pakistan's history has jolted economy and politics. Millions of homeless people are still waiting for relief and emergency support while the gigantic tasks of rehabilitation, reconstruction of infrastructures, and resettlement of homeless remain to be undertaken. Though it will take time to gauge the extent of damages, initial estimates are horrifying.

The government has estimated net losses of $5 billion (or 450 billion rupees) and, ironically, a fraction of this amount has either been pledged, committed or handed over thus far. These estimates do not include damages that people will bear while rebuilding their lives back to normal. Country's economy has been in hot waters for the last few years. This heavy burden of rehabilitation and reconstruction will further weaken it causing strain on society and local politics.

There are three interlinked but strategically important tasks ahead. Sustain relief and emergency support for 25-30 million displaced people, set forth a system of rehabilitation and resettlement and formulate mitigation systems to prevent and minimise the effects of disasters in future. All these systems have to be based on the principles of human development and safety-first.

The task of caring for millions of people, including women, children and sick, needs urgent attention. These people have to be fed, treated, and camped for several weeks. According to a rough estimate, this task required at least 40-50 billion rupees and a huge human resource to manage on-going relief and emergency work. Early signs of health emergency are already emerging as several deaths of children and women have been reported from many areas. This requires urgent health and medical aid to this vulnerable population failing to which will cause more human losses.

The second task will be to assess damages, start returning process of population and build basic infrastructure for the population to recover their lives and farming activities. There is an urgent need to start process of establishing and rebuilding road networks, reconstruct canals, barrages and irrigation head works and farm-to-market links to restart economic engine. Flood water has also wiped out farm definitions of field and survey numbers and these have to be built. Re-establishing them is a major exercise or it will lead to conflicts. During the phase of re-construction of homes and properties similar conflicts will also emerge. Government needs to set-up dispute resolution mechanisms to address property conflicts and other litigation matters.

Rehabilitation of local economies that consist of livestock, forest resources, and roads that provide lifeline to country's economy will be a major task. In Gilgit Baltistan and most parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the main focus should be on rebuilding orchards, farm and grazing lands for fodder and food. Most of these orchards and fruit trees are damaged and will take time to re-grow and produce fruits. Interim solutions have to be offered to local population to earn for family. Most of the local infrastructure of roads, link bridges and other facilities are totally damaged and need urgent repair for population to start mobility and relief goods to reach affected people.

In Balochistan, major losses are in the canal-irrigated farming areas of Naseerabad and Jaffarabad. These areas grow more than 50 percent of total agriculture produce of the province. Farming communities in these areas need to be supported. Sindh has faced big losses and damages on farming and agriculture infrastructure. Riverine economy that provides a large share in food and grain produce, has lost everything. Province needs to invest in rebuilding agriculture support systems and its destroyed road and communications infrastructure. It has to seriously consider rehabilitation needs of a very large displaced population.

Punjab has suffered heavy losses in agriculture and farming activities. Losses to its cash crop economy in cotton and sugar cane areas will incur major losses at the end of the cropping cycle this year. The net damages and economic losses in Punjab will be much higher than any other province. With its already high budget deficit, Punjab government faces a tough challenge ahead.

For reviving agriculture and farming activities for most of the farmers a systemic approach has to be adopted. This must include technical support for land management, including land leveling, agriculture inputs and provision of seed and fertilizer to small farmers, livestock management and village infrastructure improvements mainly culverts, and water course lining, link roads. Such actions must be subsidized by the government.

Disaster management has to be a multi-disciplinary and pro-active approach. Besides various measures for putting in place institutional and policy framework, disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness of the community, civil society organizations and media also have key role to play in achieving the goal of moving together.

We have to accept the fact that flooding is accentuated by erosion and silting leading to meandering of the rivers in plains and reduction in carrying capacity of the river channel. It is also aggravated by earthquakes and landslides, leading to changes in river course and obstructions to flow. Synchronization of floods in the main rivers and tributaries and retardation of flow due to tidal effects lead to major floods. Flood forecasting and warning system must be set-up and their capacity improved for alerting the likely damage centers in advance.

In disaster mitigation, our mission should be vulnerability reduction to all types of hazards, be it natural or manmade. This is not an easy task to achieve, keeping in view the population and multiple natural hazards. We have to take the first few but significant steps towards vulnerability reduction, putting in place prevention and mitigation measures and preparedness for a rapid and professional response. With a massive awareness campaign and building up of capabilities as well as institutionalisation of the entire mechanism, we can gradually move in the direction of sustainable development. The vision should be to build a safer and secure Pakistan through sustained collective effort, synergy of national capacities and people's participation.

It is also necessary for disaster mitigation components to be built into all development projects. Prior to the transfer, the focus had been entirely on post-disaster relief and rehabilitation. Very little, if any, attention was paid to mitigation and preparedness. We have to bring about a radical change in orientation, emphasizing prevention and preparedness. A strategic framework must be drawn with the approval of parliament and all key stakeholders.

Despite the fact that we have already lost thousands of lives and property worth billions of rupees in these floods, we do not have a national policy on disaster management. A national policy on disaster management must be drafted urgently in line with the new focus the policy can also propose to integrate disaster mitigation into developmental planning. The primary objective should be to change the focus from relief and rehabilitation to mitigation and preparedness.

Special budgets have to be allocated for both managing the effects of floods and mitigation measures. A serious rethinking of budget priorities is needed. Instead of levying new taxes on already highly taxed population budget reallocations are needed. Government has to reduce its costs, non-development expenditures, improve its governance and management and put rehabilitation tasks as its top priority. The world is rightly demanding domestic share for rebuilding instead of relying on international grants or loans. It is however opportune time for the government to demand debt cancellation from donors as most of the debt is unfair and illegitimate.

Expecting the government to deliver everything at this crisis will be unrealistic. We must recognise that challenges must be faced through coordination. The recent statements of politicians and government representatives indicate a different situation. Political tensions and lack of coordination will not help.

It is important to recognize the role of all five key stakeholders, including the government, civil society, donors, the private sector and media in devising disaster management plan. A broad-based dialogue for the formulation of this plan is urgently needed. Consultation will help remove mutual distrust, bridge gaps, improve coordination and assign responsibilities for a clear and focused action plan. The government must show leadership in bringing these stakeholders together instead of resorting to finger pointing or naming and blaming.

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