THE government and disaster management agencies at both the national and provincial level have been severely criticised as Pakistan experiences one of the most devastating floods in recent years.
This year’s floods, which have reportedly killed 1,500 people and directly affected over 33 million, are among the worst disasters to have hit the country.
The government’s apparent lack of planning and preparedness has been attributed to the sheer magnitude of the flood hazard. Several politicians have pushed forward narratives of ‘unprecedented rains’, ‘act of God’ and ‘climate change’ to absolve themselves and their institutions of the responsibility to protect citizens from the disaster.
These narratives reinforce an archaic, response-centric approach to disaster management, whereby the government springs into action after a disaster, providing rescue, relief and rehabilitation support. This approach has contributed to the unfolding of a monumental humanitarian crisis, and has led to extensive losses to the economy and infrastructure, disproportionately affecting the poor.
This situation raises questions about the role and responsibilities of the government in protecting its citizens against the impact of a disaster and the reasons for the disconnect between its expected role and the status quo.
Until the middle of the 20th century, disaster risk management approaches were based on the ‘naturalness’ of disasters and narrowly conceptualised as the provision of relief and assistance in their aftermath. Several decades later, the concepts of ‘hazard’ and ‘vulnerability’, the two distinct components of disaster risk, allowed for deeper insight into the processes of vulnerability; eg, how unequal access to resources and power contributed to ‘who’ is impacted.
The disaster risk management cycle approach conceptualised disaster management as sequential steps — from risk assessment, mitigation, and preparedness before a disaster, to response, humanitarian assistance, and reconstruction in its wake. This marked a shift away from the response-centric approach, acknowledging that essential steps undertaken before disasters could reduce the impact. Over the past two decades, however, the link between disaster risk and development has been much better understood. It is based on evidence-based understanding of how disasters result not from natural biophysical phenomena, but conditions of vulnerability unaddressed or perpetuated by the development process.
Pakistan’s approach to dealing with disasters was first formalised under the 1958 National Calamities Act, which made the relief commissioner responsible for relief in calamity-hit areas. The shortcomings were exposed after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake struck.
It became evident that the enormous loss of life could not have been prevented by rescue and relief alone. In the wake of this tragedy, a push was made for better legislation to formalise the state’s role in protecting its citizens against disasters.
The National Disaster Management Act, 2010, stipulated the formation of a National Disaster Management Commission, chaired by the prime minister, with the NDMA as its federal executive arm, along with the PDMAs, DDMAs, and local authorities at the provincial, district and local levels respectively. These institutions, to be formed at various government tiers, were given the mandate to work in all phases of the disaster risk management cycle, besides influencing cross-sectoral development plans.
More than 12 years later, the institutions set up under the National Disaster Management Act appear to cling to a response-centric approach to disaster management and are confined to the coordination of external humanitarian assistance. A limited number of disaster-risk reduction initiatives are unable to influence routine national economic, social and infrastructural planning — resulting in the failure to integrate disaster risk reduction (DRR) in the development process.
This failure stems from deep-rooted problems. First, there’s a lack of political will to shift from a response-focused approach, where political leaders benefit from being seen as saviours championing relief initiatives and handing out rations to the affected. Political will to empower local governments and local level implementation of DRR initiatives is also lacking.
Second is the perceived budgeting conflict between ‘development’ and DRR; this is the result of the silo mentality of government sectors and fails to fully account for the benefits of DRR in terms of loss prevention. Abundant evidence from South Asia and the Asean countries indicates that DRR measures pay off remarkably well, particularly in countries like Pakistan where human development indices are poor.
Third is the dependence on foreign aid during the disaster relief and reconstruction phase. While the urgency of humanitarian response takes precedence, little is set aside for long-term risk reduction and the integration of ‘build back better’ in the recovery process. A donor-driven agenda in the recovery and reconstruction phase can also distort priorities, leaving many urgent needs unmet.
Lastly, the legacy of a response-oriented approach, a part of which has been delegated to the military, has shaped societal attitudes. This approach has also contributed to a lack of focus on the technical and institutional capacity development of disaster management departments beyond response and relief coordination.
The current approach is also untenable in the context of climate change. Without DRR, even a rise of one degree Celsius in average global temperatures may require a nearly three-fold increase in global disaster response spending. This increase appears untenable, particularly for developing countries such as Pakistan, making it likely that an increasing number of people will be left without humanitarian assistance.
The social contract between citizens and the state must shift from one of responsibility to minimise human suffering after a disaster to one preventing calamities or minimising their impacts. This underscores the importance of integrating DRR in sectoral policies and local development plans, based on a thorough understanding of local risks and the socioeconomic and technical capacity of the concerned communities.
The writer is a director at the Centre for Disaster Management, and teaches disaster management at the University of Management and Technology.