Managing a disaster

As flash floods wreak havoc in Chitral and Neelam Valley, how prepared are we to deal with a disaster caused by severe weather conditions?

Managing a disaster

After flash floods struck Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Neelam Valley in Azad Jammu and Kashmir on July 15, at least 22 people were reported killed. Hundreds of people remained stranded for days in early July. A damage assessment report by the district administration of Chitral says glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) in Golain Valley on July 7 had caused damage to infrastructure and property estimated at Rs 329 million.

The severe flooding needs to be seen in the context of unprecedented climate change during the last few years. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in Pakistan during the July 2010 floods, killing at least 1,781 people. Property damages amounted to $25 billion.

Long-Term Climate Risk Index (CRI), which analyses the extent to which countries are affected by the impact of climate change, puts Pakistan at number 8 in the list of 10 most affected countries from 1998-2017. Puerto Rico tops the list, followed by Honduras, Myanmar, Haiti, Philippines, Nicaragua and Bangladesh.

Though the government claims that tree plantation under the billion tree tsunami afforestation scheme is to help mitigate some challenges emerging from climate change, recent increase in forest fires highlights how critical the situation is.

According to climate change experts, there are both natural and man-made factors concerning global warming and violent weather patterns in the country. Efforts can be made to come up with policies that are cognizant of these challenges and take on a long-term view as well.

"Some disasters are natural that you cannot stop, such as an earthquake. It killed over 87000 people and made 3.5 million homeless in Pakistan in October 2005, destroying properties worth billions of dollars. However, some disasters are caused by humans and can be avoided," says Professor Dr Amir Nawaz Khan, chairman of the Al-Azhar Environmental Planning and Management Centre and former dean of Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences, at the University of Peshawar.

Disaster management needs to become more holistic in scope and implementation. Awareness campaigns and arrangements for rehabilitation and rescue operations need to be designed with this sensibility.

"Cutting and burning of forests, urbanisation, residential colonies built in the path water takes during rains and floods, deforestation, continued use of plastic bags and vehicular/industrial smoke has multiplied the extent of damage seasonal rains can cause. These disasters can be avoided through enforcement of relevant laws and taking timely measures by the departments concerned," he adds.

One of the major reasons of flooding in Nowshera and Charsadda, Khan says, is the Motorway design that blocked the water flow. He says wideer bridges are needed in such projects to prevent obstruction of water.

Disaster management needs to become more holistic in scope and implementation. Awareness campaigns and arrangements for rehabilitation and rescue operations need to be designed with this sensibility.

"Islamabad was once surrounded by forests and mountains. Today, there are no forests and mountains left," says Khan, who is also Founder Director of the Centre for Disaster Preparedness and Management at the University of Peshawar. "Construction has been extended to Islamabad’s remotest parts," he points out.

"We have set up a Centre for Disaster Preparedness and Management in the University of Peshawar which offers courses from diploma level to PhD. There should be more such centres so that we have more specialists who plan in advance for dealing with emergencies," he says.

Tree plantation campaigns are needed in Punjab, Balochistan, Sindh, KP and Azad Kashmir are needed to improve climatic conditions of these parts of the country.

Apart from the government, educational institutions and elected representatives should engage in related projects all over the country to help increase forest cover in the country.

The government and its departments have taken a number of measures in the recent years to not only ensure better climatic conditions but also to respond timely in case of an emergency due to global warming or violent weather. The federal cabinet has recently announced a ban on plastic bags in Islamabad from August 14 as a first step towards improved environment and to get rid of the menace of plastic.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMA) in all provinces should take appropriate measures before the monsoon season to alert the concerned departments. A large number of encroachments alongside rivers have been removed by the respective district administration in all provinces not only for their own safety but to ensure smooth flow of water in case of flooding.

"Climate change is a reality one cannot hide from. But we must proactively prepare for early warning, mitigation, response and rehabilitation. Alerts are generated when water level in rivers reaches dangerous levels (called very high flood level). This is monitored hourly and threat alerts are generated. However at present, there is no real time system in place except for a few sites operated by Wapda," informs Abid Majeed, the Khyber Pakhtunkwa Relief, Rehabilitation and Settlement (RRS) secretary.

According to the official, the KP PDMA is linked with Federal Flood Commission, Pakistan Metrological Department, Damming Authorities (Tarbela, Warsak, Mangla etc), Irrigation Department, among others and receives information related to weather forecasts, river flow and water discharges from dams and its various canal systems on a daily basis and twice a day in monsoon. During high peak water discharges from the river, information is received on an hourly basis for selected locations from the Irrigation Department.

In a climate emergency, the PDMA starts search-and-rescue operations with the help of Rescue 1122, district disaster management units (DDMUs consisting of district administrations and line departments). Additional resources are provided by the PDMA through the deployment of Rapid Response Force and the Pakistan Army through a request to the NDMA for additional support.

"Aerial support is arranged through the NDMA (aerial evacuation, air ambulances, aerial fire-fighting), while on ground operations are conducted by DDMUs with support of Rescue 1122, civil defence volunteers and other volunteer organizations. Temporary camps are established in schools, colleges or open places," says Majeed.

There are still many challenges that need to be tackled. The forecast system needs to be automated to provide real-time alerts through installation of hydrometrological telemetric system, automatic weather stations and other multi-hazard forecasting systems. Bailey Bridges (steel bridges) need to be procured in order to re-establish road links in far-flung mountainous areas for immediate relief efforts and the restoration of market linkages for the continued supply of essential commodities to markets.

Hundreds of houses and other buildings have been constructed on river banks, which are believed to be encroachments, as the land was once part of the river. In the case of a high flood, these houses remain under threat and people have to shift to other places when the concerned district administration issues alert.

"The PDMA has planned fully coordinated strategies for ensuring an effective response to hazards associated with the monsoon season, i e, flash floods, landslides, avalanches, etc. The PDMA will coordinate with all UN agencies and humanitarian partners to maintain inventories amounting to at least 1/3 of required humanitarian needs in the high impact scenario (Food and non-food items including shelter) for the 2019 monsoon season," says Majeed.

Managing a disaster