Sep 1, 2010

Local laxity

An example of lack of preparedness was seen in Layyah where there was just one boat available with the government authorities

By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

The devastating floods that swept away hundreds of thousands of houses, killed thousands of people, damaged crops standing over millions of acres and resulted in loss of precious livestock were so severe that even a most advanced country could not have coped with them easily. However, they could have minimised the number of casualties and losses by following the guidelines of United Nations' International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR)-also signed by Pakistan but not followed in a letter and spirit. All the signatory states of this protocol are required to establish disaster reduction mechanisms as per its guidelines.

The federal, provincial, and district governments failed to tackle the floods immediately. The provincial and district governments were not equipped at all to deal with the calamity and had to wait for the help to arrive from distant parts of the country. In many cases, the delay meant days as there were hardly any road links left.

In other words, one can say the level of local preparedness was by no means sufficient. This was a major reason why some precious lives could not be saved or timely evacuations could not be ensured. It is an established fact that the local community is always the biggest stakeholder in case an area is struck by a disaster.

For this very reason the UNISDR as per UN's definition "aims at building disaster resilient communities by promoting increased awareness of the importance of disaster reduction as an integral component of sustainable development, with the goal of reducing human, social, economic and environmental losses due to natural hazards and related technological and environmental disasters."

Under the country's disaster management mechanism, resources and funds earmarked to tackle disasters are mostly centralised. These funds which are available with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) are passed on to the Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMAs) and from there to the district or local level.

The National Disaster Management Framework (NDMF) under which the NDMA and PDMAs were established also calls for establishment of District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) which, unfortunately, could not be established. Apart from issuing letters to DCOs about the concept of DDMA nothing concrete has been done so far. As has always been the case with Pakistan, this time also the federal and provincial authorities were reluctant to let go their administrative and financial powers.

As per NDMF, the district authority or a DDMA shall consist of such number of members, as may be prescribed by the Provincial Government, and unless the rules otherwise provide, it shall consist of the following members, namely:-

(a) Nazim of the District who shall be Chairperson, ex officio;

(b) the District Coordination Officer;

(c) the District Police Officer, ex-officio;

(d) the Executive District Officer Health; and

(e) such other district level officers, to be appointed by the District Government.

A major function of the authority as per the framework is to facilitate community training and awareness programmes for prevention of disaster or mitigation with the support of local authorities, governmental and non-governmental organisations. Besides, the district authority has to identify buildings and places which could, in the event of disaster situation be used as relief centres or camps and make arrangements for water supply and sanitation in such buildings or places.

An example of lack of local preparedness was seen in Layyah where there was just one boat available with the government authorities. The local Rescue 1122 office which had recently been established did not even have one boat at its disposal. On the other hand, a local non-governmental organisation Doaba Foundation could boast of having four boats in its fleet.

In view of the scale of the disaster, the foundation hired two more boats to bring the number to six and provided invaluable assistance to the government in rescue and relief activities. The number of government boats increased later but the help extended by Doaba at time when it was needed the most could not be matched.

A major flaw noticed by people was that the local authorities had not chalked out their contingency plans according to the needs of that particular district. Had they planned accordingly, they would have had sufficient boats with them. Even a child would know a district that lies on the way of the mighty Indus is prone to floods and what type of paraphernalia its administration should have.

The NDMF also emphasises the need of training communities and local governments to tackle disasters. The NDMA Ordinance states: "Community and local level programme implementation is the heart of disaster risk reduction strategies. Disaster risks are essentially local in terms of their impact, as well as response. The local communities, local infrastructure and local economy are directly affected by disasters and women, children and elderly are usually disproportionately affected. At the same time, local communities and authorities are first responders to any disaster situation."

To identify the local needs in case of disasters and prepare the communities to cope with them, it was suggested that a vulnerability atlas of Pakistan would be prepared. This would include hazard maps indicating the location of various hazards with zonation of risk levels; e.g. low, moderate and severe. For example, areas along coastal belt are prone to cyclones and back tides, those in the foothills to flash floods, in the riverine belts to floods and on fault zones to earthquakes.

While the government of Pakistan is working on this concept, the model has been followed by Plan International, an international non-governmental organisation. The organisation's Pakistan office conducted a study of eight districts in Pakistan including Layyah, Muzaffargarh, Rajanpur, Vehari, Ghotki, Khairpur and Thatta and identified their vulnerabilities to different forms of natural disasters.

Tassadaq Shah, Advisor, Disaster Risk Management, Plan International, Pakistan tells TNS that they weighed 12 to 14 different indicators in the surveys they conducted for this purpose. He says the specific scope of the study was to develop detailed profiles of the sampled districts with special reference to existing and potential hazards. The profiles, he says, include, besides other details, poverty/development indicators readily recognised by the all concerned. Secondly, he says the identification of the areas and communities at risk in the targeted districts was done carefully.

Sharing his findings, he says it was observed housing is one of the biggest determinants of communities' vulnerability to hazards in all the eight districts. He says that at all the sites housing is found to be dominated by adobe structures and shelters termed temporary by outsiders but are permanent for their residents.

"These structures normally fail to withstand floods, storms, heavy rains and strong winds", he says adding the housing issue of these communities is complex and has multiple dimensions. "For instance, due to floods communities do not construct permanent housing or improve the existing stock and due to poor housing they are quite vulnerable to flooding."

Last but not the least, the treatment of district governments at the hands of political government has a lot to do with the inefficiency of the latter. For example, the freeze on district governments' funds and frequent transfers of their officials affected their performance adversely. It was observed that the district governments did not have any funds to tackle floods. Secondly, Punjab Chief Minister even suspended DCOs in flood-affected areas for petty reasons. These types of interventions should be avoided to give district governments a say in the affairs of the districts.

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