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Monday May 27, 2024

Our disastrous preparedness

By M Asif Khan
February 10, 2022

The writer is HEC National Professor of Earth Sciences and has served as vice chancellor of the Karakoram and Peshawar universities.

It was the morning of Saturday, October 8, 2005 that Pakistan experienced the most fatal earthquake jolt in its history – one that devastated villages, towns, and cities along a 90 km long stretch in northern Pakistan from Allai Kohistan in the NW to Bagh in the SE.

The causative fault slipped by 5-8 metres, virtually hurling buildings up in the air for a few seconds and resulting in a massive collapse of built structures. Balakot and Muzaffarabad, two cities with a sizable population in the region, got caught in the earthquake’s line of fire and suffered extreme devastation. Over 90,000 people perished, most buried alive under the buildings’ debris. Those who survived were shocked, injured, displaced, and confronted with the dilemma of a desperate search for their loved ones.

Amid the continued seismic aftershocks, the nation had a rude awakening to the country’s dismal state of emergency preparedness.

For the first two days, the government, media, and public remained focused on the collapse of the Margalla Towers in the capital, Islamabad. In the process, the concerned crisis-management agencies failed to take stock of the devastation and redirect the rescue forces towards the epicentral region some 150 km northwest of the capital. The critical phase of rescue was left to those who survived. They tried removing the debris with bare hands and shovels but to no avail. By the time the army and, subsequently, foreign expert rescue teams arrived, the cries from underneath the debris had already died down.

Fast forward by a decade and a half, and an investment in disaster preparedness infrastructure in the order of billions of rupees, Pakistan once again failed when needed to rescue the victims of the Murree blizzard on the night of January 7, 2021.

In between, Pakistan suffered multiple disasters, and had mixed success in its response to the challenges. It remains an enigma for the nation why the country’s disaster preparedness remains in a state of disastrous preparedness despite decades of planning and institution-and-infrastructure building.

During much of its history, Pakistan remained stuck with a reactive, emergency-response approach in dealing with calamities. Concepts like pre-disaster mitigation and preparedness or post-disaster response, recovery, and rehabilitation remained aloof. The country’s disaster management paradigm remained restricted to three institutions, the Crises Management Cell (CMC), the Department of Civil Defence, and the Emergency Relief Cell and their counterparts in provinces. The CMC was mandated with monitoring emergencies, including those caused by natural hazards on a round-the-clock basis through an operation room.. On the morning of October 8, 2005, when the operation room was supposed to take lead in receiving and issuing alerts regarding the location and intensity of the disaster and streamlining the rescue efforts, it was found closed for renovation. The Civil Defence Department, mandated to respond to disasters, was virtually redundant by 2005 due to years of neglect and non-provision of resources. In essence, by the turn of the millennium, the civilian institutions responsible for rescue operations had faded in oblivion, leading to sole reliance on the army.

Having failed in the early phases of the rescue during the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, Pakistan did put its act together by October 10, 2005. This was mainly owed to the army, which after recovering from damages to its own infrastructure, embarked upon clearing the roads and rescuing the survivors stranded in the mountains. Subsequently, Pakistan succeeded in conducting a reasonably adequate relief and rehabilitation effort through hastily enacted institutions such as the Earthquake Relief Commission and Earthquake Rehabilitation Authority, with overwhelming support from the public, NGOs, INGOs, donor nations, and international institutions.

The 2005 earthquake led to a critical paradigm shift in Pakistan’s disaster management approach. The need for a comprehensive policy became apparent, one encompassing modern disaster management and risk reduction approaches, to be executed by strong institutions at the federal, provincial, district, and town/village levels. By 2007, Pakistan managed to enact a dedicated institution, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) under the supervision of a high-level commission headed by the prime minister. Equivalent commissions and authorities were established at provincial levels, with intentions of ultimately devolving the responsibilities to the districts and town/village levels.

Pakistan has made considerable improvements in its pre-disaster mitigation capabilities. The weather forecasting capabilities of the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) have been updated; and a dense network of weather stations operates through the width and breadth of the country. The earthquake monitoring network operated by the PMD, Atomic Energy Commission, and Wapda, now includes over a hundred seismic stations compared to less than a dozen in 2005.

Pakistan adopted a Building Code in 2007, which included detailed seismic provisions, which have recently been updated by the Pakistan Engineering Council and awaiting formal adaptation by the Ministry of Housing and Works. Universities are conducting significant research programmes addressing the detailed evaluation of hazards and risk, and testing disaster risk reduction strategies.

Despite these very significant developments in the past decade and a half, the response to disasters on the ground remains as pathetic as in the 2005 earthquake.

Despite the knowledge that ultimately it is the victims who are the first responders, Pakistan’s preference has been a top-heavy disaster management system comprising commissions and authorities. These carry good intentions of one day devolving to stakeholders at the community level. After the initial fanfare, these became as sluggish and ineffective as all the other commissions and authorities housed at the grand buildings lining Constitution Avenue in Islamabad.

The NDMA, the prime institution of disaster management in the country, is more a conduit for temporary postings of high-salaried officials. Another area where this institution and its provincial counterparts have excelled is developing sophisticated strategic plans, guidelines, and manuals through consultants at international donors’ expense. The Islamabad High Court in its recent proceedings in the aftermath of the Murree tragedy has rightly noticed that the NDMA (and its provincial counterparts) have not been able to hold their governing commissions’ meetings for years, in stark contradiction to their constitutional mandates.

The most critical negligence by these institutions is their failure in establishing any semblance of the disaster management system at the district level, let alone at the town or village level. The absence of an effective search and rescue mechanism at the community level is the critical reason behind the loss of an unprecedented number of precious lives every time the country is struck by a disaster.

The success stories of village-based volunteers in the early warning, search, and rescue operations in flash floods and glacial lake outbursts emerging from Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan every year provide a glimpse into the effectiveness of community-based disaster response. The model developed by the Aga Khan Habitat Services (formerly FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance Pakistan) in the northern areas is replicated by many countries in Central Asia and Africa but has failed to attract the attention of the NDMA and its provincial counterparts.

In short, Pakistan needs to revamp its disaster management system with a bottom-up approach. Institutions like Rescue 1122, despite failure in the Murree disaster, carry greater promise than the white-elephant institutions on Constitution Avenue. Rescue 1122 at the town/tehsil level, blended with trained volunteers at village/ward/mohalla level can evolve into a workforce capable of an effective response in disasters.

With climate-change emerging as a harsh reality, extreme hydrometeorological events with unprecedented high frequency and intensity are bound to hit the country more often than before. Pakistan cannot afford to be complacent and after years of planning and investment, needs to make those responsible for negligence and disastrous preparedness accountable to the nation.