Turning calamity into opportunity

A blueprint for turning calamity into opportunity

(Business Recorder WEEKEND MAGAZINE September 25 2010):

The recent devastating flash floods have inflicted huge losses on the national economy. But rather than mourning the losses, we should be able to learn from the calamity and plan for the future. Failures and disasters offer opportunities for development, correction and reconstruction on sound lines.

If the pre/post disaster situation is critically analysed, the result can be a fool-proof agenda for development and prosperity and the natural calamity can be turned into an opportunity for reconstruction of the country. Natural calamities like the earlier earthquake and the recent floods cannot be stopped but yes their impact can be minimised by taking some measures.

Each time any big disaster strikes Pakistan, our systemic weaknesses on how to cope with such catastrophes come to the limelight. Absence of administrative bodies and technical know-how to cope with the tragedy is witnessed leaving the nation always dependent upon international help in rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations.

Acute shortage of funds, no or little equipments, personnel and resources to rescue the marooned people, of an organisational set-up, which automatically springs into action in the time of need, are some of the ailments our emergency programme has been beset with.

Extremely hesitant as Pakistani leadership is to cut down on their routine non developmental expenditure, the shortage of funds in wake of less enthusiastic international donations leaves little room with the government other than either to slash development budget or seek expensive foreign debts as has been witnessed in post-flood situation in the country.

While the former harms development prospects as less development budget means less development and facilities for the people, the latter increases foreign debt burden and the budget deficit and disturbs the balance of payment position.

The lack of any credible, independent and permanent calamity-dealing body leads to another frailty- that of trust deficit on part of the international donors who decline to donate as is required. People don’t give generously because they’re not sure the money will be spent honestly.

Problems are also compounded by a lack of any flood reconstruction and rehabilitation authority at national level. The national and provincial disaster management authorities, federal flood commission, and provincial reconstruction and rehabilitation authorities, inter alia, are there but there is still a need for body at the national level for the purpose.

The body should have branches both at provincial and district level. Working in close co-ordination with national and foreign bodies, responsible for rescue and relocation, relief and rehabilitation of the people hit by any disaster in future. If the body is established, led by men of repute and integrity, given independence and sufficient amount of funds are transferred to its account by the government, it will go a long way to diminish apprehensions of the local as well as foreign donor bodies.

The inability of the government to come to the rescue of marooned people leaves the ground open to either army or the religious aid groups that are accused of having relations with the militants.

It also leaves army to take the lead role in rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations that invariably stretches its resources as well attention from being focused on tackling security related issues.

Another problem is the lack of appropriate infrastructure that could accommodate the displaced persons. The result is they are either sheltered in educational institutions, which invariably affect the academic year or are accommodated in make-shift homes or on roadsides where there is no shelter against the vagaries of weather.

The incumbent PPP-led government might have delivered on several fronts such as the 18th Amendment, the NFC award etc, its performance on the issues of governance, services delivery, policymaking and policy implementation has not been upto the mark. Those who govern serve as role models for the nation. But the Pakistani leadership has failed itself by not only absenting itself from the scene but also indulging in chores that were counter productive and incompatible with the tragedy.

At a time when the country was battling the floods, it was pathetic and senseless that the government continued its war against a section of the media and mud-slinging between opposition and ruling groups continued.

The lack of co-ordination between government departments in emergency also is a problem, which leads to several other complexities like dubious figures, failure to disseminate information, accountability void and the like.

Had a unified political leadership made an appeal for local and foreign donations, the situation would have been quite different. This united stand would have impressed the reluctant and suspicious foreign donors, especially some of the wealthier Gulf States that have so far remained indifferent to the needs of Pakistan.

It seems by our continued anti-west rhetoric, we seem to have exhausted the reservoir of good-will in the comity of nations and we should not expect too much from outside in this backdrop.

Comparatively low-key coverage or negative coverage in the international media and a lack of celebrity involvement has also spoiled chances for robust funding. This warrants hard work on part of the government’s media managers.

A ‘revelation’ by the Daily Telegraph and other dailies, that 12 billion Pakistani rupees were allegedly diverted from the earthquake budget to other government projects, was catastrophic for the foreign donations. Though federal secretary finance rebutted the report but the damage had already been done. Foreign aid would have been much higher had these negative reports not been published. This explains the lackluster responses by donor agencies and the international community towards the aid appeals.

The total pledges made so far stand at around $800 billion but the actual money received in cash and relief goods is $142 million. But this lack of trust in the Pakistani government’s ability to spend aid money effectively and honestly should not keep it from helping millions of affectees. Reconstruction of areas and rehabilitation of the people affected by floods is a huge challenge. This can hardly be successfully tackled by the government alone. Every segment of the society must play its role in tackling of disaster. The international donors and relief organisations should also help Pakistan rehabilitate the flood victims in the earliest.

It is high time that the government should build houses in every district to accommodate displaced or calamity-hit people. It will save the future of millions of students studying in the public sector schools whose education suffers when affectees are sheltered in these schools.

The flood zoning policy must be strictly implemented. Construction of houses, hotels and shops near or on banks of the rivers should never be allowed. A machinery pool should be established in all the four provinces. The pool, inter alia, should have plenty of helicopters, rescue boats, tents, heavy-duty machinery for lifting, digging and breaking purposes, excavators, tractors, bulldozers, vehicles, ready-made houses and bridges that can be used in similar emergencies in future. Pakistan should also open a permanent endowment calamity fund where annual allocations must be made. Its funds would be used for emergency rescue and relief activities but also for long-term recovery and reconstruction efforts.

A localised sophisticated flood warning system and calamity reporting system is also the call of the hour. Rather than waiting for the foreign donations, the federal government should divert at least 30 percent of development and 50 percent of non-development expenditures to the rehabilitation of the flood-affected people.

Resource shortages must be overcome through personal sacrifices and smart management. The military leadership has been spearheading the campaign, which has won it great laurels. Political leadership should not be lagging behind any more.

The government can also save billions by bringing down its current expenditure by unifying several overlapping departments, restructuring of Public Sector Enterprises, rationalisation of government size, budgetary measures, substantial curtailment of foreign visits and of expenses on public offices, security and energy efficiency and conservation.



About Tahir Ali Khan (Official)
I am an academic, columnist, and a social worker.

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