Pakistan floods expose response gaps

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SHAFAQNA - As Pakistan faces its fourth consecutive year of heavy flooding, relief workers are urging the government to do more to ensure inevitable future inundations do less harm.

The government says at least 86 people have died and more than 500,000 people been affected as rivers swelled with monsoon rains and glacial melt, and floodwaters engulfed various parts of the country over the past week.

Sabina Durrani of the National Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Network said Wednesday that disease had begun to strike in the aftermath of flood, with hundreds of cases of diarrhoea, dengue fever and skin and eye infections being reported in all affected areas.

Previous floods have been much worse: in 2010, 20 percent of the country was underwater, displacing more than 20 million people and killing around 2,000. Pakistan’s Meteorological Department is warning of further flooding, and the UK-based aid group Plan International has said that could cause another humanitarian disaster.

Scientists are increasingly drawing links between climate change and natural disasters including the 2010 floods, according to Germanwatch, a think tank that ranked Pakistan the tenth most vulnerable country to climate change in its Global Climate Risk Index 2015. 

Pakistan has signed onto the Hyogo Framework, which aims to better equip countries and communities to deal with disasters, and the government in 2013 approved a National Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Policy. Under that policy, funding for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was increased from PKR 93 million (about USD 907,000) in the 2011/2012 fiscal year to PKR 169 million in 2014/2015, according to Hyogo Framework progress report released in April. 

Following floods last year, “efforts were made to build resilient infrastructure which could sustain future disasters”, according to the report. 

The report also mentions initiatives to strengthen weather surveillance radar and create a satellite based flood alert system, and it says that the NDMA is undergoing a structural reorganization to strengthen its capacity.

Yet, experts say the current floods show that the government is not working fast and efficiently enough.

“These disasters are exposing its weaknesses and the fact that they are unable to meet the challenges that climate change is likely to throw upon us,” said Tahir Mehdi, a researcher with Lok Sujag, a Lahore-based nongovernmental organization that focuses on governance.

For example, the country’s century-old water management system will continue to be overwhelmed during heavy rains until the government invests in an overhaul, he said.

The problem is not only one of allocating funding; it also has to do with Pakistan’s inability to implement policies efficiently at different levels of government.

“So far the government is tackling disasters, especially floods, with a reactive approach: when floods occur, they start their operations,” said Gauhar Iqbal, a spokesman for Plan International. “There is a need to take DRR as a developmental issue and to institutionalize it and adopt proactive approach by building the capacity of institutions of and communities.”

Afia Salam, a Karachi-based environmental activist, said the poor response to the floods “indicates a severe crisis of management and governance”.

Ahmed Kamal of the NMDA admitted that there is a need for “better inter-agency coordination”, but he defended the agency’s response.

“The forecasts were as expected,” Kamal told IRIN. “Our rescue efforts began fast.”

Despite the government’s response, flooding has caused mass destruction in the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan and Giljit Baltistan, as well as the state of Azad Kashmir and Jammu.

The worst hit area has been Chitral, a mountainous district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where flash floods washed away more than 28 villages, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Much of Chitral is now inaccessible, as roads and bridges have been destroyed along with crops, drinking water systems and communications infrastructure.

“I simply do not know what the situation of my family in our village in Chitral is right now,” said Nadir Ali, a Chitrali who is based in Karachi.

“I cannot even get through on the telephone. The communication system seems to be down,” he said.

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