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Opinion

November 1, 2015

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Disasters and delivery

The earthquake of October 26 inflicted heavy damages in terms of men and material. Government estimates put the number of dead at 268. Over 9,000 houses and commercial units were damaged – more than half of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata.
The number of casualties was, fortunately, comparatively fewer than the earthquake that hit the country on October 8 2005. However, the incident was a wake-up call for the country’s managers to put them on alert for tackling any such disasters.
The discussions we had abandoned 10 years ago were resumed on the media. These discussions will last for some time until, God forbid, a bigger incident makes this one seem small.
This is not the first such incident. We have been experiencing disasters for very long now – from earthquakes to floods, from droughts to militancy and the IDPs’ crises.
Karachi, the world’s second largest city with a population of over 22 million people endured a severe heatwave this summer, which officially claimed 1256 lives as the temperatures in this megapolis soared to a record 46 degrees after the usual cooling sea breezes that roll in off the Arabian Sea failed to eventuate.
Though the official death toll stands at a very precise figure of 1256, Edhi sources put the real human cost at much higher numbers – more than 8,000. Sources say the official figures reflect only those reported cases that were issued death certificates from the hospitals. There are so many people who could not reach hospital and died at home or on their way to health facilities.
Edhi Foundation owns 1800 ambulances to serve the suffering humanity since early 1950s.
The Edhi Morgue, the only cold storage facility in the entire city with an installed capacity for 100 beds, ran short of storage space for the dead.
City managers were widely accused of criminal negligence in failing to cope with the situation. The 46 degree heat combined with the Ramazan factor and coupled with frequent

electricity outages all helped fuel Karachi’s ‘perfect storm’.
Environmentalists attribute all these disasters to climate change. Are we ready to deal with the challenge of climate change, which poses a huge potential threat to our lives? To dig out the answer to this question we need to unearth some facts.
Karachi, one of the mega cities of the world, is rapidly attracting people from across the country, all seeking economic security. As Pakistan’s major commercial hub, the port city generates 70 percent of the country’s total revenue.
The population and demographic distribution in Karachi has undergone numerous changes over the last few decades. On August 15, 1947 the population of the city was only 450,000; it crossed the one million mark by 1951. In the following decade the rate of growth remained 80 percent. Today, the mega city has grown 60 times its size in 1947, the day it became the first capital of the country.
This unrestrained urbanisation has made Karachi one of the dirtiest cities in the world, standing on number 5 in the world ranking.
Peshawar is not different. The city has drawn in a huge influx of the Afghan refugees, who join the constant flow of IDPs from Pakistan’s tribal regions where the military is at war against the militant Taliban.
Growing slums, unplanned housing schemes, poorly-managed drainage and water supply networks, and lack of proper communication infrastructure all fuel environmental pollution.
Then there is the epic traffic congestion. According to a study conducted by the Karachi-based Urban Resource Center, there are four million vehicles in Karachi. Besides two million motorbikes, close to two hundred thousand auto rickshaws could be seen on the roads, contributing to the environmental degradation.
The government, with its different list of priorities, has got little for the suffering Karachiites.
Karachi requires 2700MW electricity to function effectively, but usually only 1600MW is provided to the port city. The city’s utility electric company, K-Electric, routinely fails to provide enough energy to meet people’s basic needs.
Scarcity of water is another critical issue. Karachiites receive only 650 million gallons per day, against a minimum functioning requirement of 1100mdg. The water that is pumped through the city’s decrepit infrastructure is highly contaminated.
Media reports estimate that 32 percent of patients in the city’s three major hospitals are routinely admitted with water-borne diseases.
Paradoxically, a city that has just endured a catastrophic heatwave and water shortage, followed by urban flooding in the monsoon season, is predicted to have a severe cold snap in the coming winter as per early warnings by the Pakistan Meteorological Department’s Sindh regional office. But the political managers at Karachi are least bothered about the threat.
Be it heatwave or coldwave, both bring death to the poor masses. Data collected from hospitals indicate that the majority of heatwave casualties came from Karachi’s poorest, most desperate neighbourhoods; Landhi, Korangi, Mehmoodabad, Saeedabad and Saudabad.
The dead included daily wagers, drug edicts, beggars, nomads and those who came to the city for their livelihood. They mostly lay on the roads under the open sky with some of them lucky to find a space under the bridges inside the city. More than 25,000 families that live under the city’s overpasses, exposed to the scorching heat of summer, now await the deadly onset of winter.
On the other hand, with least to do, the authorities in both the federal and provincial governments have much to say to save their skin and hide their failures. The blame game between the PML-N led central and PPP-led Sindh and PTI-led KP governments does little more than increase people’s miseries.
Pakistan has been experiencing disasters – natural and manmade – since long. We witnessed an earthquake in 2005, huge mass displacement from the Swat valley in 2009 and flash floods in 2010-2013. The last Karachi heatwave claimed more precious lives than the number of deaths caused by the war on terror.
Keeping in view the potential challenges ahead, we as a nation, need to prepare ourselves for disasters – both natural and manmade. The state should come up with a solid strategy and line of action on how to tackle disasters in the future.
The incompetence and ineligibility of the government to deliver is directly related to the rising tide of militancy in the region.
The lack of capacity on the part of the government to cope with the situation provides more space to non-state actors to come forward and win the hearts and minds of the people in distress. Banned militant outfits can be seen leading service-delivery to the troubled communities.
Likewise, the government’s failure to deliver paves the way for increased military interventions in fragile states like Pakistan, threatening budding democracies.
The writer heads the FATA Research Centre (FRC) in Islamabad.
Email: [email protected]

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