Friday, October 8, 2010

Disaster (mis)Management

Now that the flood water has washed away half of Pakistan’s central belt and has reached the southern provinces of Sind and Balochistan, the devastation left behind is enormous. The flood affectees are having the worst time of their lives, with all their belongings and most of the livestock washed away by the flash floods, leaving behind nothing but some remnants of their houses. They are finding it extremely difficult even to sustain themselves on daily basis. There is shortage of food, tents and medicines. The water borne diseases are wide spread and already a number of children and women have died of gastro and related diseases.

Despite the concern and efforts by everyone, less by the government and more by the NGOs and philanthropists, there are still a sizeable number of flood victims devoid of any worthwhile relief or aid meant for them. There seems to be widespread chaos and confusion for distribution of the relief goods. Although a large number of relief goods are collected by many leading NGOs and sent to the flood affected areas on daily basis, these are not reaching the people. The only controlled effort seems to be undertaken by the Army, supported by the other two sister services. The army did a commendable job to evacuate the marooned and the stranded to safer places. But after that, there has been a general lack of supervision and management by the local officials and government departments.

The reason is mismanagement – rather utter mismanagement. There is no central body to channel the aid and relief goods. The NGOs and others are sending truck loads to places they deem worthy of help. So the end result is that commodity A goes to a place where commodity B should have gone, and commodity C goes to a place which is already in abundance of the same goods.

At times like this, there must be somebody who should immediately asses the damage and requirement of relief good and aid, and it is through this body that all aid and relief effort flow outward rather than everyone taking the relief operation on its own. And for this very reason, people are seen lamenting when interviewed by the TV channels that they have got nothing so far. Although in such times, every victim wants more and more, but at least what is bare minimum should reach everyone.

But no such arrangements are in sight so far even after three weeks of floods and rains. If such in-attitude on the part of the government functionaries continues, I am afraid the woes of the victims are going to increase and even their move back to nowhere would make matters worse with no materials at hand to rebuild, rather construct their houses from the scratch.

After the earthquake of 2005, an authority by the name of National Disaster Management Authority was (NDMA) created to manage the disasters. But despite an elapse of many years, the NDMA today at best can “Monitor” the disaster and has no muscles to “Manage” the disasters. During earthquake, specialist teams from foreign countries were called to detect people still buried under the rubble as they had the sophisticated sensing equipment, well trained dogs and personnel specially trained for such disasters. With the creation of the authority, it was hoped that now specialist teams at home with requisite equipment will be trained and be readily available in times of disasters. But as of today, there exists no such facility or setup that has such specialist people available. When the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad and Gakkhar Plaza in Rawalpindi were on fire, the buildings almost burnt to ashes but we did not have any specialized force or teams which could rescue people inside the trapped buildings. We did not have sufficient snorkels with the Rescue 1122 or any other agency to extinguish fire from elevated platforms. It was an apology to see water with hardly any pressure being sprinkled from the ground, which hardly reached the first floors. And when the Air Blue aircraft crashed, the volunteers did not have equipment o fight back the fire and they were seen removing the debris still on fire with bare hands or wood sticks. In fact for such eventualities, teams equipped with fire extinguishers should have been dispatched first so as to extinguish fire as fire tenders cannot reach such inaccessible areas.

In a recent interview on one of the TV channels, the Chairman NDMA very candidly confessed the inability of NDMA to control of the situation as it does not “battalions” to move physically into the disaster hit areas. So that means, as of today, we do not have any well trained and equipped body to take charge and control of the disaster hit areas. NDMA on its part can at best be called national Disaster “Monitoring” Authority for it can only provide figures and base assessments.

And that is the reason that despite collecting thousands of truck loads by NGOs and other organizations, the aid fails to reach everyone. Since the NGOs and other donor agencies are at loss to where to send their relief goods and how. So whatever suits their individual NGO/Organization’s assessment of the disaster or damages, they divert their effort there. And in some cases due to mismanagement and lack of security, the victims have reportedly looted the relief goods meant to areas ahead of their locations. The piecemeal effort also resulted in taking credit by the NGOs / Organizations for “being the first” to reach an area. Even the private TV channels were trying to race ahead of others and flashing slides that they were the first to air such and such report or incident.

If there existed a well managed and organized body, it should have had at least tents and other essential items already stored at various places and had sent these to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa immediately. Then as the flood travelled downstream, they would have had time to collect more aid and relief goods to systematically place these on ground for people to move in. Even such an organization should have already issued list of items to be packed in small cartons for immediate use and bigger cartons for subsequent use to all NGOs donor organizations in normal disaster free times. This would have helped the NGOs/Organizations to pack the items as already chartered and sent to preselected places, where these should have been taken over by Army for further dispatch to areas under their jurisdiction.

There is a need to formulate a rehabilitation strategy as any time wasted would mean dissipation of the aid and the relief goods. And in the end no one will get even bare minimum to start afresh. At the same time, the role and charter of NDMA be rehashed and it should be made a potent organization which could take control effectively in such eventualities. And it should be only NDMA or any such organization that emerges out of detailed analyses of the present situation which should have its own control room to monitor, manage and issue press statements rather than individual organizations.

I pray to the Nature to spare us and forgive us and such disaster may not befall on us again as we are ill equipped and ill prepared for such disasters. Spare us for we do not learn from our past experiences and constitutes authorities, organizations and bodies rich at top and in perks and privileges with hardly any capability to control, manage and monitor. In the meantime, our people will brave out the hard times and endure the hardships as they have always done and make some shelter for their families to live on. No thanks to the government.


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