ALMOST 40 years ago, ‘disaster orthodoxy’ started being challenged and critiqued in Western societies by researchers such as Kenneth Hewitt, Paul Susman and Phil O’Keefe, amongst others. According to Kathleen Tierney, a renowned professor of sociology, ‘disaster orthodoxy’ is the understanding that disasters are unexpected, unfortunate events that are suddenly thrust upon societies and cause normal functions and societal structures to be disrupted. This viewpoint largely absolves state institutions and the organisations (that are tasked to improve land-use plans, protect the marginalised, work towards sustainable development), for not taking responsibility for putting vulnerable communities in harm’s way.

Disaster orthodoxy, unfortunately, still exists in our part of the world. We need to practise caution when we use the terms ‘natural disaster’, ‘climate catastrophe’ or ‘monsoon monster’ to explain the current destruction caused by floods triggered by the monsoon rains in Pakistan. These terms are used widely in practice and research relating to disasters induced by natural hazards. But we must realise that nature is not against our marginalised people in rural Pakistan. We as a nation should be collectively blamed for putting our marginalised communities in harm’s way time and again. This is not God’s fury to punish sinners; we are the culprits and inaction is our sin.

We the urban dwellers residing in our secure homes and caring least about the katchi abadis and slums a few blocks away from where we reside; we the government not creating local capacity to mitigate and prepare for the threats posed by natural hazards both in urban centres and in rural areas; and we the politicians fighting endlessly for power. This is a collective apathy and failure that requires action.

First, let us stop calling it a ‘natural disaster’. Yes, floods are a natural hazard but the destruction is mostly human-induced and exacerbated by our dwelling patterns, our patterns of deforestation, our weak structural and non-structural mitigation methods, our quality of building standards and the way we have geographically, socially and economically marginalised our impoverished population. Flood disasters in Pakistan are socially constructed due to decades of negligence, inaction and weak governance. We have created large bodies for managing disasters at the federal level (NDMA and the Federal Flood Commission) and at the provincial levels (PDMAs) but not much progress has been made to truly developing district-level disaster management systems.

Flood disasters in Pakistan are socially constructed due to decades of negligence.

Although the NDMA Act of 2010 requires each district to establish a district disaster management authority, haphazard progress has been made to achieve this goal. Recently, the district of Muzaffargarh developed a comprehensive district disaster management plan with financial and technical assistance provided by UK-DFID and UNDP after eight months of consultations with local government and local stakeholders. A key question needs to be answered: is this model plan being implemented in nearby flood-affected districts such as Rajanpur? A plan without the inherent local capacity to implement is questionable. A DDMA that is not designed to work all year long on mitigation measures and preparedness activities but is activated when a threat is imminent is also questionable. It should be called a ‘Disaster Operations Centre’ if its work is restricted to monitoring and facilitating immediate relief during a disaster. Our reactive and orthodox disaster management style requires change.

Second, if we want to manage the ‘climate catastrophe’ or tame the so-called ‘monsoon monster’ effectively then we need to carry out local asset-mapping in every locality and district of the country whether it is prone to disasters or not. Each district needs detailed risk assessment and a disaster management centre/office that is engaged in proactive management of risks and threats. Ideally, this entity needs to be separate from the existing administrative units tasked with the day-to-day running of affairs in the district. Each district needs to identify the existing assets in their community such as first responders (the police, Rescue 1122 teams, the armed forces), local NGOs, local businesses, retail outlets that can provide quick relief goods, tents for shelter, etc. If an administrative unit does not have the required assets (as we saw this year in the deadly fire incident in a Dadu village), it needs to have MoUs with neighbouring districts so when a threat is imminent institutional help, without red tape, can arrive in time.

Third, restoration, reconstruction and rehabilitation in flood-impacted communities will be an arduous task. Community engagement in developing comprehensive community development plans, that include disaster management, and land-use planning will help to build resilient and empowered communities that bring local experience and knowledge for creating environmentally sustainable development paths for local districts. Restoration and restructuring after the floods must involve careful engagement with local engineers, local planners, local architects, local teachers, local doctors, and volunteers alongside our traditional administrators. If we were to approach this in a holistic way, we will be able to manage disasters that are inflicted due to natural or man-induced hazards in a better way.

At this point, when immediate relief is the need of the hour, battling threats of malnutrition in women and children, setting up medical camps to combat waterborne diseases, and providing shelter for survival are all essential. I do not want to be critical of the institutional efforts that are underway because everyone needs to engage in managing this mega catastrophe in an effective manner and the reach of the state cannot be compared. However, when the storm is over, we need to change the way we view and manage disasters in Pakistan. Local capacity for managing disasters needs to be developed or else we will have the same script: slow realisation of a disaster; a national declaration of disaster; looking for international aid; a bureaucratic response with layers of red tape; lots of politics; and lots of blame games.

The writer is an assistant professor at Lums at the Humanities and Social Science Department.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2022

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