Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pakistan one year on - what has been learned?

As Pakistan commemorates one year since the horrendous super-floods, chairperson of the Pakistani Red Crescent, Ms. Nilofar Bakhtiar, outlines what she believes are the critical steps needed to protect vulnerable populations against future risk.

It has been one year since monsoon rains triggered landslides and flooding, the likes of which Pakistan has not experienced in 80 years. In its wake, hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, millions of acres of valuable farmland were left water-logged, and infrastructure such as roads and bridges were swept away. One fifth of the country was submerged, and a staggering 20 million people were affected (photo of Pakistani Red Crescent Chairperson, Nilofar Bakhtiar, left, compliments of AP).
With the next monsoon season on our doorstep, it is vital that collectively, we take the necessary steps to ensure people do not experience such suffering again in Pakistan, or anywhere else in the world when the next disaster hits.
We at the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) are taking this to heart as we assist survivors of last year’s monstrous floods in their recovery. Disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster preparedness programming are the common factors that bind our projects together. But we cannot do this alone. It is incumbent on all sectors of society to embrace these life saving initiatives; to make DRR and disaster preparedness part of the law of the land.
Our efforts must stem from the needs of the people. We are helping flood survivors identify challenges they currently face, and those they will encounter in the event of another disaster. We are organizing village committees and teaching them how to develop village preparedness plans. We will help these village committees register with the government to ensure they are linked in with early warning systems.
The monsoon floods in Pakistan took six weeks to travel the length of the country, yet Sindh province in the south was still the worst affected. If villagers had been warned about the oncoming flood waters, injuries, deaths and damage to personal property would have been far less. 

We are encouraging people to rebuild their houses on higher ground, and are training workers on the use of more construction methods.
But for this to work, those at the grass roots level must get on board and embrace the power they have to make a positive change in their own lives. They need to take ownership of such disaster preparedness programmes, and in the process, become more self-reliant. It is then – and only then – that we will be able to build stronger, more resilient communities.
Complex disasters are nothing new to Pakistan. We have endured massive earthquakes, floods, cyclones, and drought. In 2007, flash flooding triggered by cyclone Yemyin affected 1.5 million people. An earthquake in October 2005 left more than three million people homeless. Five years prior, a ten month drought affected 1.2 million people in Balochistan. And perhaps the deadliest of all, a cyclone in 1970 that killed 500,000 people. If history is any indicator of the future, Pakistan will fall victim to more large scale disasters. To not learn from them and improve responses in the future is inviting disaster.
Pakistan is learning from the disasters it has faced over the decades. In 2010, a National Disaster Management Act was adopted by Parliament, under which the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was formed. Similar bodies have also been created at the provincial, state and district levels. In 2007, the government of Pakistan joined 139 other governments in endorsing international guidelines that set out regulations and policies related to the provision of international relief during a disaster. We are currently working with NDMA to establish suitable guidelines for Pakistan. (Photo right Usman Ghani / IFRC)
Hundreds have been trained on disaster risk management, and plans to make villages more resilient to disaster are being developed. However, although institutional commitment has been achieved, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) states that achievements are neither comprehensive nor substantial and that many stumbling blocks remain to making any real progress.
The government, as an institution, needs to change its mindset from one that puts an emphasis on emergency response to one that makes disaster risk reduction an integral component of any sustainable development initiatives. Provincial governments, which are responsible for providing funds at the district level, have yet to make any substantial budgetary provisions in this regard. As a result, very little in the way of disaster risk reduction is taking place at the local level.
Natural disasters are indiscriminate and can strike any country. This is not likely to change as the impact of global warming grows stronger, the intensity of natural disasters increases, and more people are left living in precarious situations. No government or international organization is solely capable of responding to disasters of the magnitude we experienced last year. We need to support each other. To make that happen, the Pakistan government needs to put in place a transparent mechanism that facilitates international support and speeds our response to emergency situations.
We need to give communities the tools they need to rebuild their homes, their livelihoods and recover their dignity. We can no longer live in a world where disasters are forgotten, and with them thousands of people.

It is time for us all to take a stand and vow to do what we can. Villagers: participate in disaster preparedness initiatives, learn how to better prepare yourselves. Aid organizations: implement community-based disaster preparedness activities as part of your core programming. Private sector: stage discussion groups and disaster drills to ensure your employees know what to do when disaster strikes. Governments: enact disaster relief laws that clearly define roles and responsibilities of all players during a disaster, develop early warning systems and fund disaster prepared initiatives at the state/provincial and municipal levels.
We need to act, and we need to do it now.
originally published for