IN June 2016, a serious wind and rain storm hit Islamabad one evening. Strong winds
brought down several trees, choking roads and halting traffic for prolonged period. Roadside parked cars were damaged. No record of injuries and death toll, if reported, were maintained. No forewarning was issued for people, who continued with business as usual in the midst of a potentially killer environment – and it was not India firing across line of control in Kashmir, which is always unannounced and meant to kill civilians, but a meteorological event for which forecast capability exists in science. Pakistan has plenty of electronic media that could warn people, both Islooites and travellers to Islamabad, of approaching hazard in advance. The residents discovered it was no ordinary rainy day the hard way. Businesses were clueless about what to do. The Mayor of Islamabad did not appear on media to advise people to stay indoors, humans and vehicle to stay away from trees, delivery services to be suspended, etc.
Our situation remains the same to-date. National Weather Forecasting Centre Islamabad mostly generates false predictions. Just observe report for 8th February, 2021 at website nwfc.pmd.gov.pk. Eighty degrees amidst cloudy sky were described as “cold and dry” weather, even as it was happening! Some of PPLDM’s officers were caught in June 2016 storm as they were out for dinner. To their horror, they observed that the manager of the restaurant they were sitting in was sending out delivery men on motorbikes to deliver hot food to different addresses in the capital territory in rain coats, as and when the storm raged outside. Due to absence of forewarning and obliviousness to SOPs that are invoked during hazardous weather, it was business as usual for the Restaurant Manager who was showing dedication to duty by not letting the weather obstruct his daily revenue. PPLDM officers had to go to some length to make all deliveries come to halt till the storm subsided.
The tragedy is, they could only act locally at the time. Food delivery is Pakistan’s prime employer. The sector employs tens of millions of men (for cultural reason not yet women) and generates monthly income for households all over rural and urban Pakistan. Local delivery companies are mushrooming all the time while international “Platform to Consumer Delivery Services” are slated to bring in revenue in the amount of US$400 million and above, in 2021 alone. Needless to mention, the sector is the fastest growing employer of young Pakistanis and a lucrative income generator that has survived the ravages of the pandemic. If restaurants are at all surviving, it is because of consumer’s growing reliance on hot food delivered to where they are. Imagine all Islamabad’s gainfully employed individuals and their dependent households abandoned by a meteorological service that does not issue advance warning of potentially killer storm and does not care to announce SOPs to safeguard lives!! The mayors of Pakistan’s cities don’t get involved and in fact, remain mostly oblivious themselves.
Pakistan has compelling reasons to harbour start of the art weather service. Take climate change, for one. The frequency of severe weather events is growing with climate change. It isn’t just people who desperately need awareness to adjust to change. Industry does too. Take our garment industry, the backbone of SMEs in Pakistan. As winters grow rougher, garment factories will have to manufacture winter gear to meet demand. Our garment industry is lagging behind the rest of the region in manufacturing protective winter wear. We have the potential to become exporters of prestigious winter coverings made from centuries old traditional material and craftsmanship that provides warmth free of allergens and other irritants. We are slated to become a hub of tourism because of plethora of ancient sites on our land and abundance of pristine natural beauty comprising lush green mountain valleys, brooks, land mark lakes, record high peaks and crime free society with well recognized hospitality for foreigners. We should have prioritized tourism three decades ago, when it began to generate hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue as global income and information technology revolution grew hand in hand. We are now preparing our lands for tourism amidst pandemic and rising fears of wars, it is still better late than never. All tourism based economies excel at accurate weather monitoring and reporting. Tourists want to know what weather to expect in the places they plan to visit for holidays.
We are planning to be the hub of international and regional trade. Traders need weather monitoring and reporting services to operate optimally. It is an inevitable requirement that is functionally related to the very imperatives of international trading regimes. Our ambition and our preparation in this regard are ill reconciled. Our capabilities remain to be tapped. Popular news channels in Pakistan do not cover the weather very much. It is left to the Pakistan Meteorological Department to be the main source of weather information in Pakistan. Their coverage is relatively under-developed. It lacks the comprehensive explanation of how weather works, explanatory visual graphics, and up-close footage of what is happening where people are experiencing severe weather.
Expert reporters don’t exist. Field reporting materializes only after record flood or earthquake events. Pakistan meteorological department (PMD) has weather reports on official website and on their YouTube channel “PMD weatherTV.” But the YouTube channel gets very few views, which shows lack of cultural interest in weather reports. This needs to change. Pakistan needs storm categorizations, issuance of adequate warnings, protective SOPs and, of course, mandatory reporting of weather during prime time on all private and state owned electronic media. It is not rocket science, (in which we excel). We are merely failing to fathom a critical need. Severe weather warnings, severe weather SOPs and regular weather forecasting is an important requirement for ensuring our citizens are safe, our industry thrives and travellers to our country are prepared and protected upon and after arrival.
—The writer is Executive Director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management.