THOSE who survived the 1970s will recall an image of PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto standing on the rim of Tarbela Dam, watching its dangerous surplus cannonade into the outfall below. Guided by Wapda officials, he warned the nation that, as tremors had been detected in the hills on either side of the dam, there was a real possibility that it would collapse.

Citizens everywhere south were warned that, should this occur, the momentum of water would be unstoppable. By the time it reached Karachi over 1,000 miles downstream, it would be three storeys high. Tarbela held its ground, and a disaster of incalculable magnitude was averted.

That should have been lesson enough for every generation of Pakistanis. However, successive governments have chosen to regard monsoons and ensuing floods as a phenomenon, not a predictable recurrence against which precautions could, and should be, made.

Disaster management at the national level has been the responsibility, only since Decem­ber 2010, of the NDMA. Since its inception, it has been headed by eight generals. Its handles the “whole spectrum of DM activities in the paradigm of PR3 (Preparedness, Respon­­se, Recovery and Rehabilitation)”. Its Natio­n­­al Monsoon Contingency Plan-2022 is such a comprehensive document that it should have been made mandatory reading together by every wing of the federal and provincial governments, for it assumes coordinated cooperation by every tentacle of governance. “In the event of a disaster, all stakeholders including Government Ministries/ Departments/ Orga­nisations, Armed Forces, INGOs, NGOs, UN Agencies work through and form part of the NDMA to conduct one window operations.”

We should expect to hear a groan of donor fatigue.

The NDMA’S Monsoon Contingency Plan (MCP) for 2022, (issued in May), forecast “(a) Overall, a tendency for Normal to Above Normal precipitation is expected in the country; (b) Above normal rainfall is expected during July and August especially over Northern Punjab, AJ&K and the adjoining areas of KP; (c) During September, the lower half, mostly the coastal areas of Sindh and Balochistan may receive slightly above normal rainfall; (d) Below normal rainfall is expected in GB and Northern KP.” It added that the “Average normal rainfall of Pakistan during Jul – Sep is 140.8 mm”.

The MCP presented five scenarios – ranging from scenario-1 (most likely) — normal to above normal to normal to scenario- 4 (less probable) — erratic monsoon. The fifth — (most dangerous) abnormal monsoon — was a doomsday scenario. It would arise from the collision of two systems coming from west and east, repeating the super floods of 2010. It warned of “Extraordinary flood conditions triggered by some extreme events, High water levels in major water reservoirs, Flash floods, Riverine Floods, Urban flooding, landslides, and avalanches”.

For over 30 million of our citizens, doomsday has descended. TV channels replay images of multistorey hotels subsiding and embankments crumbling into surging turbulence. Vast tracts of arable land stand inundated, crops wasted, livestock drowned, livelihoods destroyed. While every sinew of governance — civil, military, administrative and political — has been mobilised to provide relief and succor to the affectees, appeals have been made at home and to the diaspora abroad for donations.

We should expect to hear a groan of donor fatigue. They have heard it all before – since 1970, when East Pakistan was flooded following a cyclone.

At our age, we should be expected to manage our own finances, and not rely upon handouts from rich friends. The Saudis, UAE and the Chinese have just finished rolling over billions of dollars they have placed on returnable deposit with the State Bank. The IMF has approved release of the first tranche of $1.17 bn. Yet, here we are, Oliver Twist again, begging for more.

Will we ever be able to manage our economy properly? Or is the declaration of assets by politicians at election time the only barometer of our real wealth?

We are insolvent as a nation. The next step is bankruptcy which in international jargon is known as a default. Ironically, we are on safer ground there. International creditors prefer to see debtor nations swim (albeit with a constricting lifebelt around their necks) rather than drown. Greece is a recent example.

During this calamity, one had hoped that all our political parties would have suspended their bickering and come together in a show of simulated unity. Apparently not. They have separate, irreconcilable priorities.

In the 1970s, Iranian PM Amir-Abbas Hoveyda visited Islamabad. Walking through the Civil Secretariat, he was asked by his hosts to admire the roses then in bloom. He halted momentarily, and muttered: “Nice. But it is all a matter of priorities.”

If the priority amongst our politicians is the treatment of a spectacled political loudmouth or a case registered against a voluble populist leader, we will never have time to achieve anything beyond bemoaning yesterday.

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, September 1st, 2022

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