Disaster Management Regime in Pakistan


Disaster Management Regime in Pakistan

Aftab H. Wahla

Disasters are inevitable. They are bound to strike in every country or region in the world. We cannot preemptively eliminate the ever-looming threats of devastations and destruction. What matters the most is the effectiveness of the disaster management system of the affected country. The way a state prepares for the disaster, responds to the calamity, mobilizes resources to mitigate its impacts, helps the affected communities recover from post-disaster traumas and assists the calamity-stricken people in rebuilding their lives, determines the overall quality of its disaster management system. By dint of geographical, socioeconomic and demographic factors, Pakistan is one of the most disaster-vulnerable countries in the world. This vulnerability warrants thorough discussion vis-à-vis the institutional capacity of Pakistan to effectively cope with various kinds of natural and manmade hazards.

Before we dwell on the organizational setting of Pakistan, it seems pertinent to understand what a ‘disaster’ actually is so as to have a better picture of the disaster management regime of Pakistan.

As per National Disaster Management Authority Act, 2010, (hereinafter the Act) a disaster is a “catastrophe or calamity in an affected area, arising from natural or manmade causes or by accidents which result in a substantial loss of lives or human suffering or damage to and destruction of property.” In other words, disasters are such large-scale emergencies or calamities that cause terrible human sufferings or create such human needs that cannot be alleviated or catered for without assistance. As the Act hints, disasters can be natural like earthquakes, floods, cyclones, droughts, flash floods, avalanches, heat waves, landslides, tsunamis, wildfires, storms, epidemics, plagues, or they can be manmade like industrial or nuclear accidents of mass scale, bomb explosions, civil unrest, fires, etc. Disasters cause serious damage to growth and development of the affected country as it has to mobilize resources to carry out various disaster-management activities. In view of the strategic significance of disaster-risk management, governments enact institutional arrangements in order to devise, supervise and assess, and review the whole cycle of disaster management: preparedness, mitigation, risk reduction, relief and rehabilitation.-1x-1

Given the physiographic and demographic vulnerability of Pakistan, the Act was passed in 2010 and subsequently, National Disaster Management Commission under the chairmanship of Prime Minister was established. In order to execute the decisions approved by NDMC, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was also established. Now Pakistan has a three-tiered disaster management regime: national, provincial and district. NDMA was envisioned to ensure national-level coordination in the whole spectrum of disaster management activities (preparation, response, recovery and reconstruction). NDMA is also legally mandated to act as executive arm of NDMC in order to implement approved policies and plans, and offer technical and material assistance to the provincial disaster management authorities (PDMAs). Succinctly, NDMA is a legally, administratively, financially, operationally fully empowered federal body.27463

Now we look at the efficiency of NDMA vis-à-vis its handling of two crises—Covid-19 and locust attack—and suggest some remedial measures to further enhance our disaster prevention and management capabilities. The analysis will be made in the perspective of all aspects of disaster management activities.

Covid-19 pandemic came as a bolt from the blue. Having originated from Wuhan, China in late 2019, it continues to wreak havoc on the world economy and finance. Conservative estimates suggest that the world has suffered losses to the tune of $1 trillion. In addition, with over 567,900 deaths and 12.8 million infected patients worldwide, Covid-19 has become a once-in-a-century medico-economic disaster the like has never seen since 1918 Spanish flu. First case of Covid-19 in Pakistan was reported on February 26, 2020. But, the trail of destruction it left does demand critical evaluation of the effectiveness of the disaster management regime of Pakistan.Green_Coronavirus_PNG_Clipart-3275

Preparation or preparedness is a key ingredient of disaster management process. Preparation refers to undertaking all measures before the disaster strikes. Optimum preparation ensures accurate prediction regarding the extent and scale of disaster, holistic response, mitigation of the impacts and effective recovery and reconstruction. Preparation involves training, planning, designing of the coordination mechanism for institutional synergy, establishment of reliable communication channels with international assistance organizations and ICT-based centralized decision-making mechanism. When Covid-19 was reported in Pakistan, the gravity of the threats it could pose had already become evident to the authorities. There was no ambiguity over the mode of transmission of the virus, despite that the incumbent government took no particular interest in preparing the state institutions to handle the looming threat. National Plan (a legal obligation under article 10(1) of the Act) was designed on March 13, 2020, but that was not followed by provinces (another violation of article 17(1) and 21(1). The NDMA failed to stockpile personal protective equipment (PPE), N95 masks and other vital resources. The purchasing and maintenance of life-saving machines like ventilators, oxygenated beds, required numbers of isolation wards and quarantine were also neglected to a large extent. Resultantly, when cases started to spike, there was haphazard and incoherent response. Article 27 of the Act mandates the federal government to establish a National Disaster Response Unit for specialized response to the threatening disasters, but, like in many other cases before, the government failed to fulfil this legal obligation also.

Response is another critical element of the disaster management spectrum. Response is a combination of those measures which are taken immediately prior to and after the disaster. Such steps are directed towards saving lives and protecting properties. Effectiveness of the response has direct bearing on the subsequent recovery and reconstruction activities. Well-targeted and efficient response depends upon information and resources.


On the back of poor public awareness, lack of adequate policy direction and virtually zero information regarding behaviour of Covid-19, under-resourced and poorly-equipped healthcare system, handicapped horizontal and vertical coordination mechanism, dysfunctional local governments and, most importantly, absence of pandemic-handling expertise, the NDMA started responding to the pandemic with limited resources. Given the medical nature of the crisis, NDMA in collaboration with other stakeholders started working on the revamping of our healthcare system. Situation was so dire at the start that Pakistan had to import testing kits, PPE and vital drugs. With the active participation of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Pakistan developed its indigenous testing kits, thereby enhancing per-day testing capacity from zero to 70,000 tests. In a significant technological leap, Pakistan manufactured its first batch of ventilators and handed it over to health authorities via NDMA. After initial hiccups and disorderly response, NDMA is now coming up with a systematic and coordinated response. Every disaster creates an information explosion that requires institutional information-processing mechanisms. National Command and Operation Centre is one such initiative that has streamlined the information management (acquisition, assessment, decision-making and dissemination thereupon). NCOC is now implementing various initiatives to flatten the curve.

Since Covid-19 is essentially a medico-economic crisis, the government responded with multiple economic packages to maintain balance between fatalities and economic recession. Rs. 1.2 trillion worth economic stimulation and relief package; distribution of Rs.194 billion worth Ehsas emergency direct cash assistance to the workers of various informal and formal sectors; deferment of monthly and quarterly fuel adjustment in electricity bills for three months for lower domestic and industrial consumers with estimated financial impact of Rs.381 billion; rapid development of second phase of CPEC; and most significantly, imposition of NCOC-backed smart lockdown to secure twin objectives of containment of pandemic and economic revival are some of the measures in socio-economic realm whereby government has sought to mitigate the impacts of the Covid-19 disaster.unnamed

Recovery and reconstruction are also important pillars of the disaster management process (NDMA-Act, article 1). Recovery is the process by which affected communities are assisted in returning to their proper level of functioning post-disaster. Since Covid-19 crisis cannot be resolved without the mass-availability of the vaccine—which is unlikely to hit the market before June, 2021—effective recovery will require an adjustable and flexible strategy. In terms of economic recovery, the government has undertaken a series of steps to restore pre-pandemic economic hustle and bustle. PM Imran Khan’s appeal to the world for suspension of debt-servicing for less-developed countries helped Pakistan save $2.4 billion for current year; sudden rise in the export of PPE ($500 million by the end of 2020) is set to provide buffer to export sector; smart lockdown is helping to move the wheel of the economy while maintaining check on uncontrolled explosion of infections; on the pattern of US President Roosevelt’s New Deal, PM’s construction policy with Rs.330 billion mortgage financing is expected to spur economic growth of Pakistan, thereby alleviating the liquidity crunch being felt across the economic spectrum; as expansionary monetary policy to end economic slowdown, SBP slashed cumulatively 6.25% interest in six months, thereby offering loans to commercial banks at 7%. In addition, as a step to support SMEs, the government has announced a special discount rate for these entrepreneurs and allowed them to resume their operations with strict adherence to SOPs.

The infestation of Desert Locust has emerged as a crisis within the crisis. The plague, which has now infested more than 23 countries in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, is evolving into existential threat for the regions already struggling to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the World Bank, a small swarm (1km2) can have 80 million locusts, and can consume as much food as required by 35000 people. By all accounts, desert locusts are the most destructive migratory pest whose impacts on food cycle could drastically threaten livelihood, erode people’s savings and push them further into poverty. Pakistan, by the dint of its geographical location (it sits on the migratory route of the insects) and anticipated above-normal monsoon, is particularly vulnerable to the plague. An estimated 38% of the country’s total area is the breeding ground of the locusts. The Ministry of Food Security has estimated that ongoing locust infestation can cause losses to the range of Rs. 490 billion to Rs. 2451 billion, depending upon various atmospheric conditions and interventions.190726-24-1250x701

Now we look at how the government of Pakistan is handling the locust disaster in the perspective of disaster management.

At the preparation level, the concerned department, i.e. Department of Plant Protection, was awfully unprepared and ill-equipped. The department, which was created exclusively for locust survey and control in 1950, now also has pesticide regulatory duties that have seriously eroded its capabilities to handle such a crisis. Despite the fact that infestation started plaguing Pakistan in June 2019, the department failed to mobilize its resources in anticipation of the bigger swarms. Had the departments demanded timely allocation of sufficient resources, or imported necessary equipment or arranged training or induction of the pilots, the situation would have been much different than what we are seeing today. Resource constraints can be gauged from the fact that DPP, which once had a sizable aircraft fleet of 20 plus, started aerial spray with two planes. Poor maintenance and lack of experience resulted in the crash of the one plane during anti-locust operation and DPP was left with a single pilot to spray millions of acres, which required at least twenty planes, for ensuring effective control strategy. Another instance of negligence is the devising of the National Plan after a lapse of seven months, and that is also not being followed up with provincial and district level plans. The much-needed multi-institutional collaboration could also not be established till the declaration of national emergency in February 2020. Briefly speaking, inadequate preparation and preventive measures on the part of DPP are one of the many factors that are exacerbating the situation caused by infestation of locusts.

On the response level, control measures were slow, reactionary, piecemeal and delayed. The head-in-sand approach did not help the country. Had the DPP taken multiple desperate warnings from Balochistan senators and MNAs seriously, and launched surveillance and control actions, the crisis could not have blown out of proportion. Today, locust plague has spread to 52 districts and all provinces have reported its presence. Initially, pesticides were imported from China, an aircraft was arranged from Turkey and the army was requested to provide helicopters in order to treat infested areas, however, response became holistic and systematic later. As per National Locust Control Center, nearly 400,000 sq km area has been surveyed and treatment has been applied on 10526 sq km area. Pesticides are being applied with the help of four aircraft. Given the transnational nature of threat, Pakistan invoked FAO’s Southwest Asia Commission in March and under this multilateral arrangement, Pakistan, India and Iran are sharing data regarding swarm movement and size. Fortunately, below than expected rainfall in Balochistan helped dry out the vegetation and Pakistan has avoided colossal losses, but FAO’s latest warning has raised the alarm bells. As per the warning, Pakistan is going to face another locust attack from Iranian border, and change in wind direction could push locust swarms, currently present in India, back to Pakistan. Period from July 15 to September 15 has been declared as crucial for the food security of the region. Given the strategic location of Pakistan on migratory route of upcoming swarms, the World Bank has provided $200 million worth assistance package to contain the spread of locusts. As inter-institutional coordination is concerned, Ministry of Science and Technology has launched indigenously-manufactured drones equipped with mapping and sensing technology to treat the affected areas in most efficient and effective manners. NDMA and Army are helping DPP to undertake preventive and curative measures to eliminate the worst plague infestation in 27 years.180620

Effective recovery hinges on the accurate assessment of the damage the plague has caused to the crops and pastures. Since we are in the throes of the crisis, and the well-targeted assistance is being hampered by Covid-19-caused restrictions on the transport and trade, it is too early to portray the accurate picture of the losses. The government is yet to announce financial relief packages to the affected farmers, though PM Imran Khan has hinted at preparation of an emergency cash program on the pattern of Ehsaas Initiative. The proposed program must also include distribution of agricultural inputs like certified seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and livestock feed to the affected communities. Reconstruction requires long-term and sustained efforts to increase the early warning and preparedness capabilities of the Department of Plant Protection. Conditional cash support to farmers for ploughing the affected land to eradicate locust eggs before hatching; and conduct of training to farmers regarding Integrated Crop Management and Integrated Pest Management must be the integral pillar of the reconstruction.

Disaster management has been the neglected aspect in the development strategy of Pakistan. Our policymakers have never realized that comprehensive development policy cannot be fully materialized unless we incorporate disaster management in long-term strategic policy formulation. Activation of local governments, establishment of specialized rapid disaster response teams, subordinate disaster management legislation and establishment of disaster risk reduction institutions at provincial level, inclusion of disaster management in the syllabi at various levels and institutionalized mechanism for community involvement would go a long way in strengthening the disaster management regime of Pakistan.

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