Natural Disasters and SAARC Protocols: Lessons for Pakistan

Jinnah Institute (JI) convened a roundtable discussion with leading experts on ‘Natural Disasters and SAARC Protocols: Lessons for Pakistan’ following the devastating Nepal earthquake that occurred on 25th April, 2015. The event was held to assess disaster preparedness in South Asia, and Pakistan in particular, and review whether cooperation under SAARC conventions on disaster management was feasible. It also allowed an opportunity to take stock of Pakistan’s national policies on climate change.

Amb. Aziz Ahmad Khan, Vice President JI, welcomed participants of the roundtable and introduced the subject as part of JI’s effort to create policy debate on challenges confronting the region. The earthquake in Nepal which claimed over 8,000 lives, provided a starting point for the discussion and participants provided information about the assistance offered by SAARC countries, including Pakistan, which had sent an army field hospital, doctors and state of the art equipment, 3,000 ready-to-eat meal packs, 1,725 tents and 15 community shelters.

Speaking on the occasion, Oxfam Country Director ArifJabbar cited the ASEAN agreement as an effective model for managing natural disasters, further explaining that the agreement is framed within a larger socioeconomic charter that benefits from the overall trust among ASEAN member states. Such a model would serve South Asia well, provided there was a degree of ownership, as well as respect for the sovereignty of individual members.

Director Disaster Risk Reduction at the NDMA, Mr. Waqar Uddin Siddiqui described the Pakistani relief contribution for Nepal and stated that it was important for all SAARC member countries to ratify the convention on disaster management to bolster cooperation within South Asia. So far Afghanistan had yet to ratify the agreement, and till then, not much could be implemented under a SAARC regime. Mr. Siddiqui pointed out that member states had agreed to establish a SAARC environment and disaster center at the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 2014, which was a positive step towards disaster preparedness. Greater regional coordination and trust between SAARC member states was a vital prerequisite for timely and effective disaster response and humanitarian relief, he concluded.

RashidaDohad, Program Director at the Omar Asghar Khan Foundation, felt that it was important to learn from several humanitarian disasters that had occurred in Pakistan over the last decade,with greater focus on those directly impacted by calamities while devising policy frameworks that address their situation. It had become clear after the 2005 earthquake that parallel institutions for disaster response did not work in tandem, such as the establishment of ERRA and PERRA. Marking a decade since the 2005 earthquake, she pointed out that an entire generation was still being schooled in makeshift tents in 2015. The focus of policy planning was usually on the immediate fallout from a disaster, and not on the long-term rehabilitation of affected communities, she stated.

Amb. ShafqatKakakhel turned to climate change in his intervention and explained how it eroded the resilience of communities and regions to withstand shocks that occur as a result of natural or manmade disasters. He explained that there was no compartmentalization between climate change and natural disasters because, quite often, calamities triggered by the effects of the former tended to exacerbate the impact of the latter. Going forward, he felt it was important for Pakistan to pursue greater policy coherence and strategic coordination among disaster management authorities, even if NDMA remained the focal point for disaster relief.

Environmental lawyer Ahmad RafayAlam discussed how Pakistan has a robust Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) policy framework in accordance with the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA). Although DRR is a provincial subject after the 18th Amendment, it is governed by the National Disaster Management Act of 2010 and forms a rare case of federal management of a decentralized provincial subject. Given the near certainty of climate change related flooding and droughts on such a scale, he urged that national authorities must break the reactive cycle of risk reduction, where lessons are only learnt from calamities that have struck. He further recommended that federal and provincial governments should move away from post-disaster financing– done through borrowing on high interest rates – to pre-disaster budgeting that is based on sound risk assessment.

AyubQutub, Executive Director of PIEDAR, talked about the nature of disasters arising from climate change, which he termed the “ten horsemen”. These included floods; windstorms (especially tropical cyclones); droughts; heat waves and prolonged high Heat Index; epidemics; landslides and avalanches; famines owing to depressed crop and livestock productivity; saline water intrusion and inundation of coastal ecosystems and settlements; destruction of remaining forests and biodiversity; and conflicts, at local, sub-national and international levels. Mr. Qutub elaborated that in Pakistan alone, 108 floods had occurred since 1900, killing 24,312 persons and affecting 114,001,340, while causing damage worth $39,596 million. He concluded that the environmental harm humans are causing to nature can neither be seen nor predicted with precision, given its unprecedented scale, although its effects are surely permanent.

In the subsequent Q&A session, participants discussed the importance of sharing available transnational data, made mandatory by the SAARC agreement on natural disasters, and integrating civil society oversight in disaster relief and response. Participants also felt that in light of the Nepal earthquake, SAARC member countries should have allowed immediate transit access to each other to expedite relief efforts. It was suggested that the power of 3G and social media could also be harnessed to combat the fallout from disasters in South Asia, as had been done in the United States following the Ebola outbreak. It was also important to frontline climate adaptation, resilience and disaster response management at SAARC. In the lead up to the COP21 summit in December, participants observed that Pakistan was a strong contender to lead discussions on multiple aspects of climate change and a coordinated effort was needed to develop a country position. It was suggested that the NDMA and Jinnah Institute work together in this regard and help mainstream recommendations generated in Track 2 discussions on environmental protection, DRR and climate change adaptation.

The roundtable was attended by a distinguished panel of government officials, policy experts, and senior journalists, including Oxfam Regional Humanitarian Policy Advisor Mr. Shafqat Munir, National Institute of Disaster Management official Brig. Sajid Naeem, Amb. Fauzia Nasreen, Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, environmental activists, development practitioners and students.
Coverage: Dawn, Daily Times, Business Recorder, Express Tribune