Learning from the calamity

Learning from the catastrophe

By Tahir Ali

It is rare that failures and disasters provide a glimmer of hope, but when they do, they offer opportunities for sound development and reconstruction. If the post-flood scenario is analysed vigilantly and critically, the natural calamity that has wrought devastation in almost all four provinces can be turned into an opportunity for reconstruction of the country’s shabby and fragile infrastructure.

The recent flash floods have inflicted colossal losses on the economy. But rather than projecting fabricated and over exaggerated damage figures to beg for more foreign aid, we need to learn from this crisis and do improved and effectual planning to cope with natural disasters in future. Natural misfortunes such as the earthquake of 2005 and the recent floods cannot be stopped but yes their impact can be minimised by taking some concrete measures.

Each time any deadly disaster strikes the nation, they underline and bring to the public eye our structural weaknesses on how to cope with such upheavals. Absence of administrative bodies and technical know-how to deal with and thrive in crisis situations leaves the country always relying upon international help in rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations.

Dearth of funds, modernised equipments, personnel and resources to rescue the marooned people, of an organisational setup, which automatically springs into action at times of need, are some of the ailments that our emergency programme has been plagued with since a long time.

Extremely hesitant as the incumbent elite leadership is to plunge their routine non-development expenditure, the shortage of funds in the wake of lackluster international donations leaves little room with the government other than to either slash development budget or seek expensive foreign debts, as has been the case in the country habitually. While the former harms the prospects for advancement and enlargement as less development budget means fewer facilities for the people, the latter spurges the foreign debt burden and the budget deficit, which in turn distorts the balance of payments position.

The lack of any credible, autonomous and stable calamity-dealing body leads to another frailty- that of trust deficit on part of the international donors who decline to donate as much as required. People do not give generously because they are not certain if their funds would be spent honestly.

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

The association should have branches both at the provincial and district levels. Working in close coordination with national and foreign bodies, it will be responsible for rescue and relocation, relief and rehabilitation of the people hit by any disaster in future.

If the body is established, led by individuals of repute and integrity, given sufficient amount of funds and independence are transferred to its account by the government, it will go a long way to diminish the apprehensions of local as well as foreign donors.

The inability of the government to come to the rescue of the countless number of people stranded by fiercely gushing waters leaves the ground open to the army or the religious aid groups that are accused of having relations with the militants.

It also leaves the armed forces to obtain the foremost role in relief and rehabilitation operations that overextends their resources and attention from being focused on tackling pivotal security-related issues.

Another core issue is the paucity of appropriate infrastructure that could accommodate the displaced persons. The result is that they are either sheltered in educational institutions which affects the academic year or are accommodated in make-shift homes or on roadsides where there is no protection against the vagaries of weather.

The lack of coordination and understanding among government departments in crisis situations leads to several other complexities like dubious figures, failure to disseminate information, accountability weaknesses and the like.

Had a unified political leadership made an appeal for local and foreign donations, the situation would have been quite different. Leaders are role models for the people. But the leadership has failed itself by not only distancing itself from the core issues faced by the people but also indulging in activities that are counter productive and incompatible with the tragedy.

It was deplorable and irrational that the government continued its war against a section of the media and mud-slinging between opposition and ruling groups continued even during the calamity.

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 the outside in this backdrop.

Relatively low-key or negative coverage in the international media has spoiled chances for robust funding. This warrants hard work on part of the government’s media managers. All this explains the lackluster response by donor agencies and the international community towards the aid appeals.

This lack of trust in the government’s ability to spend aid money effectively and honestly should not keep it from helping millions of affectees.

Reconstruction and rehabilitation of the flood-affected individuals and areas is a massive challenge. This can hardly be successfully tackled by the government alone. Every segment of the society must play its role in addressing the disaster. The international donors and relief organisations should also help the country 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 as 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 not 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. The funds would be used for emergency rescue and relief activities and for long-term recovery and reconstruction endeavours.

A localised flood warning system and calamity reporting system is also the call of the hour. Some foreign governments are ready to do the needful.

Rather than waiting for foreign donations, the federal government should divert at least 30 per cent of development and 50 per cent 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 public sector enterprises, rationalising the size of government, curtailing foreign visits and unnecessary expenses on public offices.

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About Tahir Ali Khan
I am an academic, freelance columnist, writer and a social worker.

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