UN-Habitat Pakistan in coordination with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) last month organized a two day "National Conference on Learning from Disasters".
The main aim of the conference in Islamabad was to bring together government officials, line departments, United Nations agencies, International NGOs, the civil society and other participants who were involved in humanitarian relief and recovery work specifically in the housing reconstruction sector to share their experiences and recommendations.
The conference was attended by approximately 500 people from all over the country. Presentations were coupled with panel discussions by experts. Appreciations and criticisms were made with regards to the overall response to natural disasters in Pakistan.
In the past seven years, Pakistan has gone through a multitude of natural disasters that have left the entire nation vulnerable and in need of focused attention. The population of Pakistan is approximately 178 million and is steadily growing at a pace of 1.9 percent. At this rate, we risk more and more people being affected by such disasters.
One of the major reasons behind such high casualties and widespread destruction has been a lack of planning. Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is a systematic approach to identifying, assessing and reducing the risks of disasters. Ever since the earthquake of 2005, the government of Pakistan with the support of the civil society, the UN, INGOs and NGOs has been trying to implement DRR strategies in national practices so as to prevent such large scale post-disaster destruction and loss of life.
The implementation of the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority's (ERRA) 2005 earthquake Rural Housing Reconstruction Programme in collaboration with UN-Habitat was widely appreciated and acknowledged as a good practice not only nationally but internationally as well. Despite the challenges that were faced in the rehabilitation of 630,000 houses, it was unanimously agreed that the policy did deliver on its objectives. The concept of an owner driven reconstruction approach through social mobilization picked up momentum in this programme. The grievance redress system developed at that time proved very valuable as well as it acted as an accountability mechanism. Active evolution of the media began as well and it developed into responsible journalism and reporting. The whole programme was a testament to how joint efforts and coordination in the assistance of people despite its challenges works effectively and efficiently in extreme times. The programme was respective of the cultural heritage and building practices of the local people hence making the learning process for people easier. The training and assistance provided to people at that time contributed to mass rehabilitation while creating awareness and educating the people in seismically safe construction practices. Many of these elements such as social mobilization, community training and education, grievance redress system, maintaining cultural heritage and disaster safe reconstruction practices have been duplicated simultaneously for post-flood rehabilitation as well.
Despite the success of such DRM techniques, many observations were made on the hindrances caused by bad practices. A primary concern of all experts present at the conference was a lack of preparedness. As highlighted by many speakers, it was a lack of preparedness at government, institutional, organizational, and community levels that perhaps made the effects of the natural disasters so widespread and calamitous. This was also the primary reason behind most DRM approaches being reactive in response rather than proactive. Observations were made at policy failure as well. Frequent shifts in the government affect and consequently shift the implementation of that particular policy, rendering any sustainable rehabilitative efforts useless or incomplete. Similarly a lack of even distribution of powers left many local governments unable to make or implement decisions during critical times. Coordination between different government entities was also lacking and blocking the coordination of other non-governmental entities. Administrative boundaries such as the mozzahs (revenue villages) and tehsils (sub-districts) stood in the way of many relief activities.
Lack of urban planning and development was another contributor to the disastrous affects of natural disasters in urban areas. Few to none seismically sound construction considerations have left dense urban populations vulnerable at the hands of any future natural or man-made disasters. The role of the media and their inability to create post-disaster awareness about preparedness was also emphasized.
During the conference, its key speakers, panelists and experts, in lieu of concentrating on the mistakes, extensively deliberated at giving practical recommendations that would help Pakistan in becoming more disaster resilient in the future. The role of DRM and preparedness was strongly stressed upon by all. In this regard, the importance of quick and efficient decision making at all levels for credible and practical solutions was recommended to minimize the sufferings of the people. It was observed that DRM had not yet reached institutional maturity in Pakistan and the time was right to incorporate DRM capacity building and education in schools, among government staff, communities, media and at district, sub-district and provincial levels. A planned approach towards DRM recommended to be followed and existing good practices should be continued for sustainable rehabilitation and not discarded due to political shifts. Among other suggestions, it was also proposed that clear distribution of resources and responsibility must be made among NDMA, PDMAs the Federal Ministry of Disaster Management, Planning Commission and ERRA. The idea of subsuming ERRA into the NDMA made by the former Chairman NDMA Lieutenant. General (Retd.) Nadeem was widely applauded, even though the Government of Pakistan was of a different opinion.
Proper planning was unanimously advocated in the implementation of building codes, seismically safe construction practices, urban and rural planning, environmental considerations and capacity building. There was a widespread acknowledgment of the mistakes made in the past as they contributed notably towards the learning process. In this regard recommendations were made towards the establishing of forums for knowledge and experience sharing. Increased coordination and institutional capacity building were identified as a dire need of the times. Technical training of communities in housing reconstruction, as well as awareness of cultural and environmental preservation was advised.
The role of the media, though greatly appreciated, was also given future direction. Proper training of the media to increase awareness among people and promoting a culture of preparedness was crucial to the peoples learning.
The conference was very successful with respect to active participation of experts on the subject and the subsequent recommendations made by them. It was a great achievement to involve the government, the UN, NGOs and the academia to share their collective learning towards the creation of a useful knowledge sharing platform. The contributions are expected to further strengthen DRM practices in the country and make Pakistan more resilient towards future natural as well as man-made disasters.