Our reaction to the floods

Raza Rumi’s article in Express Tribune today is one of the best analysis of the flood reaction that I have read. While most of the media is taking an opportunity to make attacks on the president (as if he would be flying helicopter rescue missions himself), Raza takes a rational and realistic view of the disaster – what could have mediated the terrible effects, and how we can prepare better for future disasters so that the impact is more manageable.

Thousands are dead and injured and millions are displaced due to the floods. The national reaction to this calamitous situation has been that the president should have cancelled his visit to the UK. The president too has not been sagacious. But the debate is frivolous and sidetracks the real issue: our sheer lack of preparedness for natural disasters and emergency management.

Five years ago, a massive-earthquake rocked Pakistan. Later, several institutions such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) were set up to deal with natural calamities. While it would be unfair to critique the good work done by the NDMA, it is clear that centralised authorities and relief machinery are of little use in a populous, diverse country like Pakistan.

In the last five years, as the recent floods indicate, the state has done little to galvanise and decentralise disaster preparedness and management. Between 2005 and 2010, the magnitude of natural disasters was not large enough to expose the inherent weaknesses of the emergency infrastructure. As before, Pakistanis have come forward and an unprecedented civic activism and volunteerism can be seen in reaching out to victims of the floods across the country.

Central to our predicament is the decline and, in some instances, the collapse of institutions. At the provincial and district levels, the state machinery is reactive and when faced with a colossal disaster it crumbles. This is not limited to government institutions. Take the case of civil defence: it remains a neglected arena with little funding, mobilisation and leadership.

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