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Opinion

July 11, 2017

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Dealing with disaster

Carlos Flores, the former president of Honduras is reported to have expressed immense grief after his country was hit by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He uttered these memorable and meaningful words: “we lost in 72 hours what we have taken more than 50 years to build”.

This has happened to the people of Honduras only once. However, Pakistanis have faced a similar situation every year following monsoon rains. According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Pakistan’s vulnerability and exposure to natural disasters and hazards falls within the range of medium to moderate to very severe. The country’s northern areas are exposed to a range of hazards, such as earthquakes, floods, cyclones, storms, landslides and avalanches.

In addition, there are a number of human-induced hazards  – such as terrorism, sectarian violence, unplanned and rapid urbanisation and environmental degradation – that run rife. Owing to these factors, innumerable lives are lost in one or the other form of hazards.

As per the  World Disaster Report 2003, 6,037 people have died and 8,989,631 others have been affected by natural disasters in Pakistan during the period between 1993 and 2002. This reveals the status of the human impact of natural disasters in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, little has been done to take concrete steps and long-term preventive measures to mitigate the impact of disasters. As a result, the loss of human lives due to these disasters has increased substantially in recent years.

Two major calamities have surpassed all previous incidents of this nature in terms of  human and financial losses. The first one was the October 8, 2005 earthquake that rocked the northern areas of the country. It was a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions in the history of Pakistan as more than 74,000 people died. Besides, 128,304 people were critically injured and 600,000 houses were destroyed or damaged. This has resulted in more than 3.5 million people being rendered homeless. To reiterate the views of the former Honduran president following the 1998 hurricane, Pakistan lost its infrastructure within a few minutes and the scars of this disaster have yet to heal.

Another natural disaster that struck the country was the floods in 2010. The floods affected over 20 million people across the country and inundated nearly one-fifth of Pakistan’s total landmass. The floods surpassed the physical destructions caused by previous natural disasters in Pakistan. The then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon had termed the floods “the worst natural disaster” and a “slow-motion tsunami”. The catastrophe was unprecedented as over 20 million people were affected – which is more than those collectively affected by the 2004 tsunami, the October 2005 earthquake and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

While the overall loss of lives stood at 2,000, the destruction of property, livelihood and infrastructure was beyond imagination. The floods affected more than four million people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone. The natural disaster destroyed and damaged 180,000 houses, over 466,626 acres of crops, 2,000 kilometres of roads, 80 bridges and 700 educational and 150 health facilities.

The question that now arises is: what has Pakistan has learnt from these disasters? The answer is that we only become active after the country has been struck by a disaster and then go to slumber until there is another catastrophe to jolt us out of our deep inertia. There are countless problems when it comes to government institutions and their policies and plans to deal with disasters. The key issue involves the failure to implement policies that are formulated every year after these calamities take place. Unfortunately, we forget these disasters and victims as soon as the floodwater subsides and the print and electronic media shift their focus to new issues.

Although we cannot stop the occurrence of natural disasters, we can undoubtedly mitigate the financial and human impacts of these calamities by taking concrete preventive measures that are prevalent elsewhere. For example, Mary Comerio – a professor of architecture at the University of California Berkeley and an internationally recognised expert on disaster recovery – argues that the catastrophic events most often trigger attempts to implement major policy changes.

She states that back-to-back, large-scale disasters – such firestorms, floods, hurricanes and the Northridge earthquake – that hit the US in the early 20th century led to the revisions of national building codes that focus on disaster mitigation. Professor Comerio explains that building codes provide rules on how to construct buildings in earthquake-prone areas. Storm and flood warnings can help evacuate people in a timely manner. While these measures though cannot prevent the incidence of disasters, they can help mitigate the impact of natural hazards.

For an effective earthquake hazard mitigation policy, building codes are fundamental, particularly in areas that are vulnerable to earthquakes. According to Professor Comerio, California is unique in its special seismic code requirements for schools and hospitals. For instance, the Field Act – which has been named after Charles Field, the key sponsor of the legislation – had its genesis Long Beach earthquake on March 10, 1933 that had a magnitude of 6.3 on the Richter scale that destroyed or severely damaged 230 school buildings in Southern California. The Field Act 1933 was enforced to ensure that students were safe in schools. It stipulated a strict seismic design criteria and a rigorous plan-checking programme on the state level.

The enforcement of building codes and construction standards has saved innumerable precious lives in disasters – not only in the US but also in many other developed countries where there is zero-tolerance for the violation of such regulation. It must be remembered that more than 17,000 children were killed when school buildings collapsed in the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. Had there been any seismic code and its strict implementation in Pakistan prior to the earthquake, the lives of so many schoolchildren would not have been lost.

With regard to flooding – which has been the most recurring disaster that has affected a large number of people in the country since Independence – preventative measures can play a significant role in mitigating any negative impacts. There is a need for the urgent mapping of all the rivers and canals where floods are a regular occurrence. The concerned departments and authorities  – the NDMA, the PDMA and the irrigation and  forest departments – should indicate prioritised areas where urgent help is required. To this end, flood protection boundaries and walls are the immediate measures.

In the long run, all rivers and canals should have proper flood-protection boundaries. These should be properly maintained and repaired as and when it is required. By taking these measures, we can allay the human and financial costs of floods in future. However, if we continue to adopt an attitude of ‘bureaucratic inertia’ towards natural disasters, we will be left with nothing but lament – just like the former Honduran president.

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