Pleasure turned to tragedy
Of the many tourists who came to Murree to enjoy the snowfall, twenty-two of them met a tragic fate. Who is to blame? The current government, successive governments, tourists, “unprecedented” weather, or all of them? This is the last mentioned. For a long time, Pakistan has been one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. We have spent billions on disaster prevention and response. And have suffered enormously, both economically and socially. Remember the two mega-disasters – the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 super floods.
In the aftermath of these disasters, between 2005 and 2015, Pakistan developed impressive disaster risk reduction and disaster management legislation, policy framework, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and plans. High quality academic analyzes of disasters have been conducted and preparations for vulnerability and [multi]risk mapping of disaster-prone areas and populations, and state-of-the-art software and hardware systems have been put in place, which are managed by highly trained personnel. Internationally renowned institutions and experts have also been involved in providing technical and financial support.
Just visit the websites of national and provincial disaster management authorities. I bet you won’t find many holes in the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) legislation. Their policies, plans, structures, SOPs and annual reports are all effective. For example, the establishment of Disaster Management Commissions (DMCs) at the federal and provincial levels under the National Disaster Management Act of 2010 has indeed been a great development. According to the law, the role of the DMCs is central to the DRRM because they are the boards of directors. At national and provincial levels, the DMC is headed by the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers respectively. While the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, the president of the Senate and the leaders of the opposition of the provincial assemblies are members of their respective commissions. Moreover, the representation of the armed forces, of the various ministries and of civil society is guaranteed by law. In June 2021, PATTAN, the organization I am associated with, had asked DMAs to share information on several DMC meetings held since 2010. However, from the 10and January, we received no response.
The Punjab DMA website shows that the “Disaster Response Plan 2021 prioritizes the protection of lives, livelihoods and property of those at risk. In this regard, the Chief Minister of Punjab has constituted a Cabinet Committee for Disaster Management under the chairmanship of the Minister of Punjab Disaster Management Department and similarly other stakeholders are also invited to ensure their participation and monitor the implementation decisions at their level. However, the DMC of Punjab remains indifferent. Isn’t it surprising that the opposition leaders in all the assemblies never strongly demanded that the DMCs be made functional?
When the PML-N was in power, it treated the DMCs the same way the PTI treats them today. However, in the aftermath of the Murree tragedy, Shehbaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto demanded Imran Khan’s resignation. In the past, the same rulers let the nation down on such occasions and the opposition of the day demanded the same from the incumbents. The Holders reject similar claims of similar failure. Just remember how the PPP government failed to save 1,000 lives from the heat wave in Sindh. And the PML-N must not forget how the government of Punjab under the leadership of Shehbaz Sharif – seen by many as Punjab’s most capable and efficient administrator – failed the people during the 2010 Punjab floods . He has not released the report of the commission of inquiry because it would expose his administration’s poor disaster governance.
Simply, every ruling party has failed the nation time and time again in such situations. They shamelessly politicize each other’s failure but are unwilling to improve their governance. Our media have amplified politicization by inviting only politicians to their TV shows. Virtually no scientists, disaster experts and practitioners were invited. As a result, the confusion further multiplied. For example, a TV show host claimed that people cannot die from extreme cold – hypothermia. Most anchors and newspapers reported that 150,000 vehicles entered the Murree Hills on the 6thand and 7and January. However, no one bothered to check how many of them returned on the evening of the 7thand. In short, it seems that capturing the audience took priority over a humanitarian crisis.
Early warning and its adequate dissemination have a very close relationship with disaster response. 5and In January, the Met Office had issued a high alert and an early warning. While the media should have carried the message, most TV stations ignored the publication of the warning. Even though all entry points to Murree are controlled by toll plazas, the local administration has still failed to stem the influx of tourists. Although the Deputy Commissioner of Murree issued a traffic advisory, he took no concrete action to block the entry points. On the other hand, some PTI ministers attributed the rush as a sign of economic recovery and prosperity. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean you’re ignoring the welfare of citizens and failing to fulfill your legal responsibilities.
Furthermore, successive governments have failed to establish District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMA) in most districts including Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which is mandatory under Section 18 of the Act. of 2010. Without strong elected local governments, disaster management will remain poor.
It seems fair to conclude that a high-level disaster management structure/mechanism – run by technocrats and bureaucrats alone and not governed by top-down elected bodies (national disaster management commissions and elected local councils) – is most likely to continue repeating similar tragedies. On the other hand, consider the success of the National Command Operation Center (NCOC). Its success is based above all on a strong organic relationship between elected officials and technocrats, and regular coordination between the two. In almost all other areas of risk, the entire burden rests on the shoulders of bureaucracy. The PTI government should reform the disaster management structure in light of the NCOC model. Otherwise, as the saying goes, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating,” the test of disaster reduction and response is in the disaster itself, not on the website. As we throw away bad pudding, as we throw away old tires, we also have to get rid of the paper tiger disaster management.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 15and, 2022.
Like Reviews & editorial on Facebook, to follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.