Floods vs earthquakes

September 21, 2022

The destruction and loss of life caused by the devastating floods across Pakistan this summer have badly exposed multiple fragilities surrounding the country.Beyond the early price tag unveiled by...

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The destruction and loss of life caused by the devastating floods across Pakistan this summer have badly exposed multiple fragilities surrounding the country.

Beyond the early price tag unveiled by the government for the short, medium and long term to repair the badly disfigured infrastructure and key elements of daily life notably across the rural belt, the authorities still appear to be digesting the full scale of the damage.

With opposing political factions presiding over Pakistan’s central government and the provinces, quick progress towards evolving a unified national mechanism following this nightmare and the way forward at best remains unlikely.

It is a terrible reality in a country badly exposed to a succession of natural disasters whose effects have been amplified with human-made challenges. Terrible images such as that of a hotel crashing down the banks of a river in Swat reportedly at a spot earlier declared unfit for reconstruction following a similar crash just over a decade ago spoke volumes of Pakistan’s failure to enforce the writ of its law.

With the next round of parliamentary elections due no later than a year from now, it is hard to imagine an active pursuit of common interests for the people of Pakistan by diverse ruling players, each armed with venomous hatred of the other.

As Pakistan’s ruling class confronts the fallout from the latest devastating floods becoming one of the largest humanitarian tragedies in the country’s 75-year history, comparisons are increasingly being drawn to Pakistan’s response to the country’s earthquake of 2005 that killed at least 70,000 people across the northern mountainous regions.

But there are key differences between the latest tragedy versus the one in 2005. As Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman noted several days ago, local authorities were overwhelmed when they concluded that it was just not possible to carry out an uninterrupted large relief and rescue operation using limited aerial platforms.

Helicopters for such a proposed operation could not operate in parts of Sindh where large-scale flooding was visible all around for tens of miles, making it virtually impossible to create makeshift strips for landings and take-offs.

Unlike 2005, when the US administration at the time immediately flew in dual rotor ‘Chinook’ helicopters from Afghanistan to join the rescue work, a qualitatively similar response is still unfolding. Though some of Pakistan’s foreign friends have entered the fray to support relief and rescue work, the scale remains significantly less than the response to the earthquake.

There are at least two very visible differences driving the international response to the floods. First, with members of the ruling structure continuing to squabble away, there is indeed a gap in the way that the response is being managed. Unlike 2005, when former president Pervez Musharraf was squarely in charge, Pakistan today remains under fragmented authority. And while the Musharraf-led structure had democratic gaps, the top management of the earthquake of 2005 also had a tighter managerial focus at the leadership level.

Second, to Musharraf’s credit the overall leadership of the response in 2005 and beyond rested on a qualitatively better sense of integrity. Today, early reports from the flood-hit regions -- notably Sindh -- have included claims of flood relief supplies being squandered. While such reports must not delay the response for flood victims, they must work to urgently prompt the creation of a tightly held managerial structure led by individuals completely above reproach. A delay in the creation of such a structure and the widening of questions over gaps in the response, will inevitably create gaps in the prospects for local and overseas response to this tragedy.

Pakistan, at a deeply tragic moment yet again in its history, cannot be held up at the whims of its squabbling leaders. In contrast, the response to the latest humanitarian tragedy in tandem with future safeguards must become the source of a policy reform that is above prevailing divisions among leaders.

Caught again in the eye of the storm, Pakistan’s ordinary citizens have risen to meet the challenge. Collection stalls for flood victims have sprung up overnight across the country where citizens routinely line up to make contributions for an emergency response. Yet, this is a moment for further action not the path towards eventual complacency.

While large parts of Pakistan are deluged today, the floods must not cause an ignorance over future challenges, notably warnings of Pakistan expected to become a water scarce country from 2025 onwards.

The losses from the floods could have been avoided, at least in part, if indeed Pakistan would have built more dams. Emerging from this catastrophe, Pakistan’s leaders must work towards building consensus and embarking upon new large dam projects. Water storage for the future will not only support Pakistan’s focus starved agricultural sector, but may also save the country from further human and material losses.

The writer is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on political and economic affairs. He can be reached at: farhanbokharigmail.com

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