Misery far and near
“Onward speeds the mighty rivers, In their mad and wild career; Down through cities, towns and hamlets, Causing misery far and near.”
IT took just minutes for residents of flood affected areas across Pakistan to be reduced to helplessness, fending for themselves as flood waters roared from the mountains into the cities, towns and villages.
Rivers over flowed and barrages and dams breached, wrecking homes, hearths and everything else that the people relied on.
As the merciless tides roared higher and higher, the gloom and doom grew deeper and deeper through beautiful valleys of KPK, lush green plains of Southern Punjab and Sindh and the proud land of Balochistan just as the farmers were preparing for harvesting season.
According to estimates, the worst floods in 50 years in Pakistan, have impacted an estimated 33 million people of which millions are displaced and hundreds of thousands have lost their houses and life savings.
The extent of devastation, damage and misery it has caused is mind boggling. What is even more shocking is the slow response of both the government institutions and the general public.
Now finally, after two and a half months after the early start of the Monsoon season first affecting Balochistan in mid-June, the institution and people have woken up to the tragedy ravaging Pakistan.
The scale of the disaster could have been contained if we had reacted on time and put plans in place for evacuation of people to avoid precious loss of life.
The scenes of the five brothers stranded on a rock for hours waiting to be rescued and finally drowning, the new born baby stuck in slush with the umbilical cord still attached are horrific and heart wrenching.
The political uncertainty and economic meltdown with double digit inflation had already made it hard and in most cases impossible to make ends meet.
With the ongoing floods now the people are left with nothing. Homeless tens of thousands, starving millions in the affected areas are out under the open sky and don’t know where the next meal will come from.
Waiting and waiting for days before someone gives them food and shelter. This is what is happening in the flood affected areas of Pakistan. The stories of people are worse than you could imagine.
The late realization of actual flood situation and apathy displayed, despite the clear warning and information by the United Nations and other environmental agencies is unpardonable.
Earth quakes are unpredictable as are tsunamis but floods can be predicted and preparatory arrangements can be made in advance specially when we know we are one of the countries most affected by climate change and seasonal floods.
It is possible to reduce the risks and damage such disasters bring through measures such as setting up an early warning system.
We have a well-established Met office, an active environment Minister and the huge setup of the National Disaster Management Authority and Provincial Disaster Management Authorities and still we could not foresee and prepare to face the consequences of climate change and its impact on Pakistan.
Even after the devastating floods of Balochistan our concerned institutions did not wake up. There was no national realization of what was happening to the proud Baloch people. Unfortunately disaster preparedness has never been a priority.
When weather forecasts predict heavy rains that may cause flooding, it is the responsibility of national and provincial institutions to prepare for the eventuality but it did not happen.
Villages most affected by the flooding hardly have access to advance information. People living in these villages only left their mud houses when possible flooding after heavy rains continued for days.
Even when they left, they had no safe place to go and were left under the open sky. Pakistan’s National Climate Change Policy does mention the need to put in place early warning systems; evacuation plans and strategies; ensuring reconstruction of rural housing to reduce risks of floods; and construction of disaster-resilient hospitals, dispensaries, and strong school buildings to be used as designated safe shelters.
But none of these plans are ever implemented. In fact, school buildings are normally one of the first to collapse with the gushing flood waters.
Government after government announces strict action against illegal construction on waterways and flood encashment areas and yet our waterways are littered with housing schemes and hotels etc.
obstructing the free flow of flood water. Permissions continue to be given to powerful land and construction mafias by turning a blind eye to their illegal activities.
No heed is paid to the quality of construction of small dams, barrages, canals, bridges and roads and we see them breaching and collapsing on the slightest of pressure.
In rural areas no action is taken against the big landlords when they divert water from by constructing illegal canals from barrages and dams compromising the integrity of these structures and expose large areas to flood devastation.
In addition to the NDMA and the PDMA, there are several government departments whose ambits touch on disaster-related issues, like those dealing with forestry, irrigation, and public health and engineering.
They may have different responsibilities but these departments are closely interlinked with each other.
Efficient coordination and planning between these institutions are key to minimizing risks and loss.
But sadly they work in silos and have no contact or coordination resulting in devastating results.
Despite great advances in medicine over the past few decades, medical complications arising from natural disasters are still extremely common.
These are particularly problematic for developing countries like Pakistan where resources are limited and the infrastructure weak.
Stagnant pools of flood water serve as ideal breeding grounds for pathogens that result in diarrhea and other waterborne infections like Malaria and Cholera epidemics are a well-known phenomenon in endemic areas worldwide.
The recent floods have only served to highlight the inadequacies within our health system.
With public health spending currently makes a very small portion of our GDP, it is obvious that more is required to be done in order to protect those affected by this disaster from the adverse effects of waterborne diseases.
It is imperative that this aspect is promptly addressed in order to prevent a health crises emerging on top of the humanitarian crisis currently being witnessed in much of the country.
It is true that the scale of devastation is so widespread that no government, especially of a developing country like Pakistan can handle it alone.
It is however, also true that if we had been watchful, heeded the information available and focused on the impending disaster instead of the entire country, especially the politicians focused on political shenanigans and power games, we would have been better prepared to handle the damage.
Government and NGOs are finally responding to the emergency and national and international appeals have been launched but the damage has been done and the tragedy of the precious lives lost is irreversible.
I do not want to delve into the issue of how these floods have affected the future food security of Pakistan as it is terrifying.
The current devastating floods should be a wakeup call for the nation and the government and its institutions to start focusing very seriously on issues that plague our nation.
We need to have national consensus on not only the future political and economic orientation but also on ensuring good governance, accountability and social welfare of the people.
We must shift the focus of governance from the elite to the grassroots level. If Pakistan wants to develop and succeed, then we require deep introspection, identification of issues and national consensus on how to eradicate the problems.
We will have to put the welfare of the common at the front and centre of our development philosophy otherwise we will continue to be inundated by not only floods but deluges of much greater intensity.
—The writer is former Ambassador, based in Islamabad.