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Pakistan's history of disasters and the lessons we fail to learn

  It is now common wisdom that all hazards are natural and all disasters a result of unjust anthropogenic interactions with nature. Though t...


It is now common wisdom that all hazards are natural and all disasters a result of unjust anthropogenic interactions with nature.

Though the most recent flooding is different in nature compared to the one in 2010 — the latter was a flash flood while the current is a riverine flood — in both cases, it can be argued that the damage caused by both disasters is the outcome of changes in demography as well as ill-advised development policies across Pakistan.

Some of the more immediate outcomes of the latest disaster will be felt in the form of displacement, rise in illiteracy, unemployment, health crises, water and food scarcity, infrastructure damages, loss of human lives, destruction of crops, livestock losses, water-borne diseases, outward migration to cities and loss of social capital.

Faced with these multi-faceted challenges in such a short period of time, humanitarian and relief agencies must act and adapt rapidly to mitigate the problems faced by the millions of people who have been impacted in recent weeks. But are we ready to do so? Have we learnt any lessons from our long history of disasters?

Pakistan and disasters

Pakistan is vulnerable to most natural hazards. It is prone to floods, earthquakes, droughts and cyclone storms. It is prone to famines and heavy monsoons. And let’s not forget the other kinds of disasters that its inhabitants inflict upon each other — the scourge of terrorism.

Over the past 17 years, Pakistan has witnessed three major crises — before the current one — that have cumulatively impacted almost 28 million residents. While the nature and scale of these crises were different, two of them were caused by natural hazards — the 2005 earthquake, which impacted 3.5 million people and the 2010 floods that affected more than 20 million people.

A third disaster, born out of the evil machinations of the humankind, was the 2008-2010 Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) crisis. This was triggered by an internal conflict and displaced almost 4.2 million people from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and what were then known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).

As per media reports, 89 per cent of the people who were displaced chose not to stay in refugee camps arranged by the government. The remaining were housed in camps located in Swabi, Mardan Charsadda, Nowshera, Kohat and Peshawar. Almost 50pc of the IDPs were children and 90pc had lost all their assets (including livestock, crops etc).

But for the sake of brevity and the constraints of space on this platform, let us focus our thoughts on natural hazards that may not have turned into disasters. Both the super floods —the one is 2010 in general and the most recent one in particular — did not strike Pakistan in a single day; rather, they built up over several weeks.

For instance, in 2010, the flood started from Balochistan from July 22, 2010, and then within a span of one and half months, the gushing waters had inundated several towns and villages of Sindh. This provided ample time to the Sindh and Punjab governments to ready themselves for the impending disaster and ensure they had enough resources to mitigate any crisis.

It was almost déjà vu in 2022 — and yet, no lessons had been learnt. After all, disaster management is more about preparedness than response.

A similar script was witnessed in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake when the falling debris, unauthorised construction, change of land use and dwellings in the hazardous zone converted the hazard into a disaster of biblical proportions.

Media reports following the earthquake put the death toll anywhere between 87,000 and over 100,000. Another 138,000 were injured and over 3.5 million rendered homeless.

According to official statistics, the deceased included over 19,000 children — the majority due to collapse of school buildings. The quake itself damaged over 780,000 buildings, including 17,000 schools and several hospitals. Around 250,000 livestock also perished.

Floods … again … and again

According to the Federal Flood Commission, Pakistan has witnessed 28 super riverine floods in its 75-year history. The first recorded super flood was witnessed in 1950, followed by 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1995 and then every year since 2010 — which also saw the worst flood in the country’s history. These floods collectively affected 616,558 square kilometres of land, snatched 13,262 precious human lives and caused losses worth over Rs39 billion to the national economy.

The area compromising modern day Sindh, in particular, has a long history of recurring riverine floods. In the 19th and 20th centuries, floods hit the province’s geographical territory at least18 times.

Data is not available for the years of 1882, 1887, 1903, 1914, 1917, 1921, 1930 and 1948. In 1973 alone, however, 259,586 acres of crops were affected in eight districts — Jacobabad, Sukkar, Nawabshah, Khairpur Mirs, Larkana, Hyderabad, Dadu and Thatta.

Two years later, another super flood impacted 1.13 million people. The next year, heavy rains caused yet another flood and around 28,260 villages were affected, 3,276 people displaced, 9,087 cattle were lost and 99 people lost their lives. Similar stories of damages have been reported in 1978, 1992, 1994 and 1995.

What is particularly interesting to note is that though the province has a centuries-old history of natural disaster, successive post-independence governments have largely have been less responsive to this reoccurring phenomenon and failed to act in a proactive manner.

Flash floods — which are quite sudden and are often caused by a cloud burst in the mountains — are also not new to the country.

On July 23, 2001, for example, record monsoon rains lashed Islamabad, as well as the districts of Mansehra, Rawalpindi and other towns and cities across Pakistan. The resultant flooding killed at least 350 people and injured another 150.

Some 125 people remain missing to this day and at least 1,500 families were rendered homeless. The most seriously affected area was the Mansehra district, where more than 200 people were killed and around 1,000 houses destroyed. A large number of cattle in this largely rural area also perished, and parts of the roadway also collapsed, making it difficult to reach those in dire need of assistance.

Apart from Mansehra, the other affected areas were Dader (Shinkiari) and Buner districts, which were struck by flood waters and landslides. At Dadar Qadeem, at least 200 homes collapsed or were completely washed away.

Narrated below are the some of the reasons — only tip of the iceberg — that transform a traditional hazard of floods into a horrendous disaster as seen in recent times.

Population explosion

In 1981, the country had a population of 84.25 million, which jumped to 207.7 million within a span of 36 years — an addition of 127.2m (or 3.53m per annum). The country is passing through the third stage of demographic transitions, where both the birth and death rates are declining.

There is also a gender component associated to demography, particularly in Pakistan, where the female population growth rate is higher than males.

The total population of women in 1951 stood at 15.5 million (46.22pc), whereas in 1998 it had moved up to 47.1m (48pc). The intercensal increase in 47 years, meanwhile, stood at a whopping 302.36pc.

The 2017 census recorded a female population of 101.3 million — 48.7pc of the total population. Notwithstanding the gendered aspect of this population growth — which we will pick up on a little later — this phenomenal rise is compelled to utilise the natural resources beyond their carrying capacity, thus challenging the notion of sustainability.

Development policies

In his seminal work that correlates Pakistan’s development policies and its environmental issues, The Environmental Repercussions of Development in Pakistan, Arif Hasan along with the late journalist Amenah Azam Ali, states that development brought about by the colonial regime in India had four main objectives:

Exploit existing natural resources to serve the needs of industrialisation in Britain

Increase agricultural production in response to the demands of industry and domestic consumers in Britain

Prevent the development of an indigenous industrial sector in India, and limit or destroy existing industrial activity

Increase the revenues of the empire

After independence, the Government of Pakistan continued most of these policies as a result of which a large percentage of natural resources, such as forests, lakes and mines, were taken over from the old feudal order and local communities and became the property of the state, thus making their large-scale commercial exploitation possible.

One example of deforestation would substantiate this argument. Around 4.91pc of Pakistan’s land is covered in forest — among the lowest in the region.

The percentage of Pakistan’s forest area is, however, not without contestation, with the figure varying between 2.2pc and 5.1pc. What is important to remember is that trees along the land-water borders serve as the first line of defence against any incoming water streams.

Besides deforestation, another major cause of flooding is the lack of regular maintenance of canals and bunds, which in turn reduces their carrying capacity and causes water spills onto the adjourning lands.

Recent media reports and video footages from across the country have highlighted the instability of various bunds. A similar situation was witnessed in the 2010 floods, where in Sindh alone, there were several breaches due to the enormous pressure of gushing waters.

In many cases, the roads and commercial infrastructure developed over the last 30 years is less sensitive to the traditional pathways of water flow — blocking it and devising alternative flows creates a back pressure effect — resulting in flooding of the adjoining settlements. Similarly, encroachments on the mouth of the river outlets in the southern parts of the country has reduced the water flow which again results in flooding.

The colonial masters never allowed human settlements on katcha lands [riverbeds] as these are primarily meant for the overflow and residual water by the Indus during the monsoon floods. The post-flood alluvial soil, being rich in nutrients, acts as a natural fertiliser for the crops, so the use of katcha land was primarily related to agricultural purposes. The land is now dotted with commercial establishments and hamlets, which are the first to be inundated every time it floods.

Relevant observations

Based on 13 years of experience on disaster management and its related issues, here are some of my observations on the current scenario for a comparative outlook with the previous calamities:

There are marked differences in the pattern of occurrence of disasters — their frequency, typology, and location: frequency has increased manifold, intensity has increased and spatial distribution of impact is wider

More people are affected; there are more deaths, displacement and damage to property

The effects of a single disaster can be felt across political boundaries

More people in high-risk areas prone to natural hazards, and development plans are increasingly failing to tackle this problem

Expenditure on reactive mode of disaster management (in relief and rehabilitation) has increased greatly

Countries in the subcontinent show wide disparities in terms of how the issues of disasters are addressed, though the impact of any disaster does not respect the political boundaries — the smog in eastern and western Punjab is a case in point.

Disaster management — the approaches

The current disaster management regime in Pakistan has its roots in the response to the 2005 earthquake which involved the private sector, civil society and government institutions. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Pakistani government created institutions responsible for disaster preparedness and response at the national, provincial, and local levels.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was meant to be responsible for policy-making and coordination at the national level. At the provincial level, the respective Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMAs) were mandated to set up a system that would immediately spring into action in the aftermath of disasters and calamities — whether natural, man-induced, or accidents.

The current thinking on disasters and their management skills falls into two main paradigms — the conventional and the alternative.

The former is in turn influenced by natural science and applied sciences approaches. The natural science approach equates hazards and hazardous events and also perceives disasters as synonymous with hazards. It emphasises research into geophysical and hydro-meteorological processes. Disaster management activities focus on monitoring of hazards and prediction of hazardous events.

The applied science approach emphasises documenting and analysing losses and damages associated with hazardous events. It determines the magnitude of a disaster in relation to the magnitude of the losses incurred. Initiatives influenced by this approach focus on research into the exposure and resistance of physical structures.

In contrast, the alternative paradigm is based on a combination of social science and the holistic approach. The social science approach brings vulnerability into the disaster management discourse.

It links disaster to vulnerability, which is a degree of the lack of capacity of households, communities and societies to absorb the impact of hazardous events and recover from them. This approach maintains clearly that hazards are natural but disasters are not. It also shows that the magnitude of a disaster is related to differential vulnerability between and within communities. Differences in age, gender, caste and class are among the factors making different groups of people more or less vulnerable to disasters.

The holistic approach is an important constituent of the alternative paradigm. It maintains that disasters are closely related to unsustainable development. It maintains that risk scenarios are combinations of capacities, vulnerabilities, losses and hazards. The holistic approach regards disasters as socio-economic hazards.

Role of media

Experience shows that the media has a very important role to play not only during, but also in the pre- and post- phases of disasters. It is also a well-established fact that mass communication systems organise themselves under the disciplines of the market.

They produce and manufacture news items, articles, editorials, features and so on and package them in a way that it creates a sustainable market among a large and growing audience. The masses for the mass media are a market. Information becomes a commodity and readers or viewers become information consumers.

From the normative perspectives, it can be argued that the media has to act as a public interest institution by putting forward public concerns and interest. The media’s convergence with disaster management efforts needs to be grounded in initiatives to inform educate and empower communities with the relevant knowledge for influencing public action and policy towards disaster preparedness and mitigation.

Gender issues

Various studies have found that women account for more than half of the 200 million people annually affected by disasters across the globe annually. The degree of vulnerability to disasters varies according to socio-economic influences.

Gender is a significant factor among these, with the majority of the gender-related disparity in the experience of disasters arising from the different roles and responsibilities men and women undertake in their day-to-day lives. In most South Asian societies, women have almost the entire responsibilities for maintaining the household — they are responsible for providing food and water as well as taking care of the sick and the old.

In the case of a disaster, irrespective of the losses and trauma, women still have this responsibility. Disaster managers’ lack of awareness of gender differences has resulted in insensitive and ineffective relief operations that largely bypass women’s needs and their potential to assist in mitigation and relief work.

The most important issue deserving emphasis is that contrary to popular perception, women are not helpless victims but display great strength in extreme situations. They possess skills, resilience and extensive knowledge about appropriate coping strategies, but their capacity remains largely invisible.

Operationalising the alternative paradigm

Infrastructure destruction figures provide a good sense of the long-term consequences of a catastrophe as we have seen in events as varied as the Sumatra floods, the Indian floods, Haiti earthquake and the Iran (Bam) Earthquake.

To mitigate the ongoing disaster of floods in Pakistan, the following steps must be taken on a war footing, as disaster response is all about timely action:

Though there is visible donor fatigue in the global North, the international media must be tapped in to raise awareness about the scale and the intensity of the present day calamity

Foreign embassies need to be energised for targeted fund raising. They need to be made accountable against the set targets

In the same vein, it is suggested that the funds collected for the Dam Fund be released for relief and rehabilitation

All hazard mappings by various organisations need to be in the public domain

Simultaneously, in the flood-affected areas, district level teams must be made operational for needs assessment and identification of would-be beneficiaries

In the floods of 1973, the administrative apparatus was agile and responded efficiently to the catastrophe. In the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods, civil society played an instrumental role. For genuine and not-so-genuine reasons, by 2022, both the arms of the disaster management regime have lost their zeal. It’s necessary to provide the humanitarian sector enough autonomous space so it can play its due role

Helicopter operations and sorties need to be made operational without any delay

Instead of tents, roofing kits (bamboos, tarpaulin, ropes) must be procured from local sources and from neighbouring countries to provide temporary shelters to the displaced

High power water trash pumps need to be transported to the sites where water remains stagnant

Gender-segregated raised platforms need to be constructed immediately as reports of more riverine floods are making the news to meet the eventuality

Meanwhile, the NDMA needs to facilitate respective PDMAs for a comprehensive, compact, composite and a consented rehabilitation plan

Above all, land use plans of the affected areas need to revisited and guarded from all violations. That will protect the affected population in the long term form the nature’s wrath. The flash floods’ path ways need to be cleared of all encroachments

The relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction enterprises need to respect the local ecological format

Women play a significant role in all stages of disaster and climate risk management. Gender specific requirements need to be given priority and care needs to be provided to the care givers

Market forces have the tendency to capitalise and make profits on a disaster and its destruction. The sudden rise in prices of tents is a case in point. This vulture mindset needs to be reined in through legislation and administrative measures

If history can be a guide here, the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction will take a minimum period of three years. A lot of civil society veterans are of the opinion that if the Economic Affairs Division and other administrative setups can ease their procedural requirements from the civil society organisations, it would accrue to the benefit of the people of Pakistan.

The need of the hour

The high population growth has put tremendous pressure on the resources of the region. The 90s were characterised, in particular, by declining public expenditures on the provision of social services, such as health and education, due to the increasing number of people in South Asia. This phenomenon of population growth has taken its toll on natural resources as well, which is now working against intergenerational justice and is bound to invite the wrath of nature.

The development mindset of the planners is, at best, insensitive towards their environmental obligations and treats the ecology as a mere commodity. The market-based economy does not account for the cost of ecological destruction and the natural habitats are taken for granted.

On the other hand, a shift in paradigm is needed from a reactive to a proactive mode of disaster management to alleviate the sufferings of the community. The dominant approach to dealing with disasters, which offers no space for community-based initiatives — since it sees communities/victims, as part of the problem for which solutions need to be worked out — is not very appealing.

There is, therefore, an urgent need for a marked shift in this paradigm. A middle- and long term community-based disaster preparation enterprise is the best response. This is what history teaches us. This is what we must heed, lest history continues to repeat itself.

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