How do we govern disaster – 01 Sep 2022

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute.

The recent floods in Pakistan are among the worst disasters that have hit Pakistan and its people since 2010. The floods have posed a series of challenges to the country, the brunt of which would have to be borne equally by Pakistan’s citizens, administration, and political parties. The devastating impacts of foods are being widely discussed in mainstream media, so I would confine myself to the governance of disaster management.

First: the causes of the disaster. It is a natural calamity, a clear manifestation of a warming world. The hotter air (due to the rise in sea surface temperature) in the Indian Ocean (which is warming by an average of 1 C as opposed to the global warming average of 0.7 C) holds more moisture and is believed to cause this increased monsoon rainfall. The coastal areas of Pakistan, which used to have rains in the pre-monsoon tropical storm season, and Balochistan, which used to have showers in winter, received unprecedented monsoon rains this year.

In August 2022, incredibly intense rainfalls poured over the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan (784 per cent and 500 per cent more, respectively, than the usual August average). The hill torrents from the Sulaiman Mountains turned ferocious and devastated the northern part of Balochistan, southwestern Punjab, and southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Heavy rains in upper KP led to flash floods in Chitral and Swat, whereas glacier melting wreaked havoc in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Indeed, a natural calamity of the above magnitude cannot be avoided. However, with the right policies and practices, one can try to stop turning these calamities into human disasters. Unfortunately, even after experiencing two major catastrophes in the last 17 years (the floods of 2010 and the earthquake of 2005), we have failed to institutionalize the ‘right set of policies and practices’ for disaster prevention and rescue, relief, and recovery in case a disaster hits. This lacuna has further intensified the negative impacts of natural calamities on us.

Violation of land use zoning in the riverine and torrent-hill flood-channel catchment regions can lead to major disasters. After the 2010 floods, it was decided that construction in the river catchment would be regularized through a ‘River Act’, but that could never be implemented. Consequently, like the floods of 2010, the current floods too damaged or washed away many buildings and tourism infrastructure constructed on the riverbed. Land use zoning is a technical matter at first sight, but it is deeply embedded in and linked to governance. Granting permission for construction on the riverbed is clearly a governance failure.

The hill torrent floods on the Suleman range affected southwestern Punjab in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2013 too. The channels carrying hill torrent water are poorly maintained, and some have been encroached upon by unregulated construction. As a result, any unusual rains bring devastation there. Getting inundated by the same hill torrents over and over again and not doing anything about it is yet another governance failure.

After the large-scale damages from the 2010 floods followed by the 2011 & 2012-floods/rains, the Federal Flood Commission (FFC) started working on formulating a ten-year national flood protection plan (NFPP). The work was initiated in 2013, and a final draft plan for 2015-2025 was ready in 2015.

The NFPP aims to reduce floods and damage susceptibility and mitigate flood impacts. To achieve these goals, it recommends watershed management, revision of SOPs for the operation of major reservoirs, environmental management, flood forecasting and warning systems, floodplain policies and legislation, floodplain mapping and zoning, community preparedness, and institutional capacity building as nonstructural flood protection measures (costing Rs41 billion over ten years). Among structural measures, it recommends flood protection works, flood protection structures across hill torrents, and construction of breaching sections at barrages/bridges while enhancing their capacity (costing Rs290 billion over ten years).

In 2017, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) approved the NFPP. The federal and provincial governments agreed to finance it on an equal sharing basis. The plan is worth Rs332.6 billion (Rs33 billion per year for ten years).

Wonder why there is such devastation in 2022 if we had an NFPP in place since 2015? The speed of hill torrent floods (six hours of the causative event) is way higher than the speed at which the plan is being unfolded. It took two years each for preparation of the plan (2015), its approval (by CCI), and the preparation/submission of an umbrella PC-1 to the Planning Commission for its financing (2019). Then came Covid-19 and the NFPP was yet to take off when current floods struck.

Interested in knowing more about the governance of disaster management at the micro level? Amidst one of the worst floods, the commissioner of DG Khan was removed last week. Whatever the reason behind his removal, changing the head of divisional administration (with institutional memory) right in the middle of a disaster shows our approach to disaster governance.

Returning to the current floods, the sheer size of the affected area, the enormous number of victims, and the short time within which aid is required all create insurmountable challenges. The needs for emergency aid are immense: gendered response, cooked/dry food, clean drinking water (or water purifying tablets), medicines (for skin diseases, cholera, diarrhea), sanitary pads and hygiene kits, feed and veterinary care for remaining livestock, shelter – the list goes on. Delivering aid needs infrastructure to reach the affected. But many roads are inundated or damaged, bridges washed away, power lines damaged, and there are many areas where the only access is through helicopters.

Amidst the above-mentioned constraints, multiple players are involved in delivering emergency aid; local self-help, civil society, national and provincial governments, rescue teams of armed forces, and international partners. Interestingly, the agencies mandated for disaster management seem to outnumber the relief players. FFC is responsible for the development and maintenance of flood protection and control systems. The National Disaster Management Commission (chaired by the prime minister) and its implementing arm, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) – with its provincial branches, the PDMAs – are mandated to manage the whole spectrum of disasters. Then there is a federal flood relief committee chaired by the planning minister and a newly established national flood response and coordination centre, which would serve as a bridge between DMAs, donors, and government institutions. PTI has its own relief coordination committee headed by Dr Sania Nishtar.

The current disaster management institutional arrangement reminds me of the 2010 floods when the prime minister set up three different commissions in six days (of August 2010): a commission constituted for damage assessment and distribution of relief goods in Punjab; a ‘clean commission’ comprising honest and credible Pakistanis; and a supervisory committee on the NDMA, the National Oversight Disaster Management Council. All those overlapping institutions formed in 2010 did nothing for disaster management except to create confusion. The same may be the fate of the current overlapping bodies.

Coordinating the delivery of emergency aid (and collection of donations); having plans ready beforehand; bringing all the involved stakeholders on board; ensuring the proper operation and maintenance of irrigation structures; creating (but also strengthening the existing ones; operating and maintaining organizations for disaster preparedness, relief, and recovery are all facets of governance.

While ‘government’ refers to planning and decision-making by the state, the societal notion of governance is altogether different. How are decisions made within a certain society or nation? Who is involved in these decision-making processes and who has which powers to decide? On which evidence is planning based and which planning documents are taken as the basis for decision-making? How are conflicting views dealt with? The answers to these questions define the contours of governance which in turn determine whether natural calamities can be stopped from turning into human disasters.

It is time for reflection. Are we ready to adopt a societal notion of governance – at least for disaster management?

Twitter: @abidsuleri

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