DISASTER relief is not a stand-alone operation. It cannot be effective unless clearly designed and aligned with reforms and reconstruction needed for resilience. Instead of rediscovering and reinventing our system weaknesses anew after every disaster, the country should have in place a compass or a framework to guide our recovery and rebuilding efforts. This can be developed now, based on real-life lessons from the 2022 floods and tested and finalised during the next disaster, whenever it visits us.

The most important lesson from the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 super floods is that the institutions and systems needed for emergency and relief assistance are so weak — in some instances non-existent — that relief operations consume and overwhelm all higher tiers of governance. They drag along all civil and military authorities at the federal and provincial levels who may not understand each other’s mandates and duplicate competencies. VIP visits and helicopter rides have become a typical policy tool to accelerate emergency relief and show concern and support.

In disaster situations, what is urgent often distracts policy leaders from thinking about important, system-level interventions. System reforms also have an urgency and are critically important for both relief effectiveness and long-term resilient development. Their absence locks disaster victims further into vulnerability. This is an opportune time for Pakistan to attend to reform and resilience needs while still undertaking relief and humanitarian activities.

Pakistan has over the years developed an elaborate ecosystem of national- and provincial-level institutions, while district-level institutions await their turn. Pakistan’s disaster relief policy is governed by a guiding principle — that it is the government’s responsibility to extend support to all poor victims of a disaster. Fiscal space has shrunk but successive governments have always honoured this principle to the extent possible. This broad policy commitment has, however, not been clearly articulated or operationalised. Our response to disasters has therefore remained ad hoc. There are four key institutional and policy barriers that need to be addressed:

Our response to disasters has so far remained ad hoc.

First, while climate change is a federal subject, floods and several other extreme events fall in the provincial sphere of responsibilities. Institutional roles and responsibilities are sometimes unclear between local, provincial and federal level entities. The standards of eligibility of federal support have not been fully defined by the government. The threshold points that specify at what junction federal institutions would get involved in a local or provincial disaster are not clear.

Second, there are no data sets or clearly designated institutions for various types of climate disasters to bridge the emergency-development continuum. All we have is household income data maintained by the Benazir Income Support Programme. BISP does not have any vulnerability maps nor has it collected data from beneficiary households for disaster vulnerabilities — understandably so because its mandate is limited to income support to people living below the poverty line. Since BISP also does not maintain any information on climate disasters faced by its beneficiaries or on extreme events occurring in its areas of operation, it can only act as a post office and disburse equal or flat amounts without independent damage assessments and verifications.

National and provincial disaster management authorities or other departments do not provide any yardstick to determine the level of support needed for each disaster category. Further, the government has not created specialised institutions or drawdown facilities, nor has it developed standard implementation procedures across the provinces, nor reinforced capacities to build stockpiles, nor developed SOPs for speedier procurement for disaster without compromising on transparency and competitiveness.

Third, there are no financing mechanisms in place for disaster management. Contingency and emergency funds are not embedded in budgets that could be accessed independent of high-level decision-making forums. In fact, early attempts to earmark a small percentage of budgets for national and provincial disaster management authorities have been discontinued. Instead of harvesting ongoing development projects for cash disbursements, it is time Pakistan created catastrophe funds and initiated risk transfer and insurance systems by prioritising key policy objectives and identifying in advance post-disaster spending priorities.

Fourth, and most critically, is the absence of a disaster-recovery framework that serves as a building block for reconstruction and resilience. Pakistan’s disaster preparedness journey started in 2005 when it committed to the Hyogo Framework for Action. It coincided with that year’s tragic earthquake upcountry. The HFA was a blueprint for Pakistan’s disaster-risk reduction efforts and shaped the policy direction of our newly created institutions. But Pakistan’s underlying disaster-risk drivers remained strong. Sufficient institutional, legislative and policy frameworks did not exist or were not sufficiently strong to integrate disaster-risk reduction in policy planning.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) also had to come to grips with the 18th Amendment and the National Climate Change Policy in 2013 and a new humanitarian-development architecture based on three agreements with the Paris Agreement, SDGs, and the Sendia Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR). The challenge now was to design and operationalise instruments that supported and integrated these three tracks. Investments in disaster-risk reduction became a precursor to climate-resilient development.

The NDMA committed in SFDRR that Pakistan would embark on a seven-year journey of yearly targets from 2016 to 2022. The SFDRR target for 2022, for example, is to “increase the availability of and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster-risk information and assessment to people”. It is an ongoing target for 2030 and an extremely important entry point for Pakistan to engage with the global community to support the former’s reconstruction or reparation needs after floods. SFDRR Priority 4 focuses on ‘build-back-better’ (BBB) in the post-disaster recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction for the restoration of physical infrastructure and societal systems, and to revise livelihoods, the economy and environment.

The world has moved from BBB to what Pakistan needs most — building back stronger, faster and inclusively. The 2022 floods offer an opportunity for relief operations to serve as a building block for reconstruction and resilience. Initiating the development of a framework for recovery and reconstruction can help generate data and build an economic case for loss and damage, an agenda point of the next climate summit later this year.

The writer is an expert on climate change and development.

Published in Dawn, September 8th, 2022

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