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Analysis: How effective is Pakistan’s disaster authority?

ISLAMABAD, 3 April 2014 (IRIN) - The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was set up shortly after the 2005 quake that killed at least 87,000 people in northern Pakistan to act as the “implementing, coordinating and monitoring body” for disaster management.

What the government wanted was an NDMA that stands ready to pre-empt and respond to natural disasters as they occur. Did it get it? Opinions vary.

“Right now, we see problems with disaster management - and were just discussing why the drought and famine in Tharparkar had been allowed to occur despite the existence of the disaster prevention bodies,” Mushtaq Ahmed Jan, lecturer at Peshawar University’s Centre for Disaster Preparedness and Management told IRIN, blaming the problem on the Meteorological Office’s failure to predict low rainfall, followed by mismanagement at several levels.

Other experts echo this view. Disaster management in Pakistan has “not been very effective”, Abuturab Khan, assistant professor at the COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, based in Abottabad, told IRIN. Khan was one of the authors of a report Natural hazards and disaster management in Pakistan produced in 2008 and published by the Munich Personal RePEc Archive.

“Disaster management aims to reduce, or avoid the potential losses from hazards, assure prompt and appropriate assistance to victims of disaster, and achieve rapid and effective recovery,” the report says. It questions Pakistan’s capacity to achieve this and says many flaws remain in delivering what people need in disasters of various kinds.

“These bodies lack coordination, expertise and suffer from poor governance,” Khan said. Since the 2005 disaster, landslides, earthquakes, droughts, cyclones and monsoon flooding have killed at least 4,000 people and displaced tens of millions.

But for Brig Kamran Zia, in charge of operations at the NDMA, the institution has come a long way in its short institutional history. “We have learnt a lot since we first began work,” he said, adding that the organization had “improved its capacity immensely”.

He said NDMA was a “very lean” organization, with limited staff and resources, but that despite these challenges, it had worked hard to improve training, and now had teams who had learned techniques for urban rescue and other hazards, and had been able to cope with recent disasters “very effectively” whenever it was called on to do so. “The learning process continues for us,” he said.

An effort was also on to build capacity at district and community level, he added.

Structure, staff and partners

The NDMA chairman is appointed by the prime minister and is headquartered in Islamabad from where it runs an emergency disaster helpline.

Its staff are made up of specialist personnel, (e.g. urban rescue teams), and community-level workers countrywide. It has stocks of emergency supplies and works with the military when helicopters, boats and vehicles are needed. Volunteers are brought in during emergencies.

NDMA also works closely with the Pakistan Meteorological Office and their drought, flood and earthquake information centres, according to Zia.

The Metrological Office is expected to provide early warning of impending natural disasters to trigger a managed response.

Initial responsibility for alerts rests with the District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) who can bring in the Provincial Disaster Management Authorities if needed (PDMAs). Both DDMAs and PDMAs were set up under a 2010 modification to the NDMA law, as a move to improve early warning and delivery.

The provincial government then determines if further assistance is required and can involve the federal government and the NDMA if it believes this is needed. It is the NDMA’s task to call on humanitarian aid from international groups after assessing the situation.

“Going it alone”

One criticism cited by aid workers was that NDMA sometimes excluded or delayed international disaster support because of a desire to show that the country was capable of handling the response on its own.

“The NDMA too often has tried to `go it alone’ and not involve other agencies even though they have expertise and experience,” said one aid worker who asked not to be named. He said that while the NDMA said it could go it alone, when floods or other disasters hit, its “reluctance to call in international agencies” meant people suffered more than they should.

There was an example of this in 2007, after Cyclone Yemyin hit coastal areas.

The then head of the NDMA rejected damage estimates by international bodies and complaints from those affected that inadequate aid had been provided because the damage had been underplayed.

“It was frustrating to hear calls for help from local people and groups but not really be able to move as we could have and offer them much greater assistance,” said a local worker for an international humanitarian organization commenting on what he described as the “Yemyin debacle”. The worker who asked not to be named also said international agencies had offered help but been turned down.

Three years later, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, which saw a landslide that created a huge lake and swept away villages, accused the NDMA of making promises it failed to keep.

Some government officials are also critical of the response to last September’s 7.7 magnitude earthquake in Balochistan, which killed more than 800 people. “The NDMA has not really done much to help people in Awaran,” said one official who asked not to be named. “Security has been an issue but the Balochistan PDMA was not really given help to work there either.” He also said the PDMA was “starved for funds”.

“These bodies lack coordination, expertise and suffer from poor governance”
Some in the humanitarian community, however, say the NDMA does help deliver national-level coordination and leadership, and acts as a central government interlocutor for disaster-response expertise.

“The Government now has a strong preparedness focus,” a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Islamabad, told IRIN.

“Preparedness activities include the pre-positioning of relief stocks, enabling collaborative arrangements with partners, and rapid needs assessment mechanism planning, including participating in training. These elements enable the coordination of a response once a predictable event occurs.”

Local disaster officials “under-resourced”

Too often, analysts say, the system does not work as it should because the first tier relief bodies - the DDMAs - are under-resourced.

A 2012 study commissioned by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a group of UK NGOs, identified major shortcomings in Pakistan’s relief efforts, and said the country “needed greater funding, political support and co-ordination to work more effectively…

“The NDMA, PDMAs and DDMAs also need greater funding and skilled staff. The NDMA has many skilled staff but most of them are deputed temporarily from other departments, increasing the risk of high turnover and low institutional memory. The PDMAs have mixed capacity.” The report also states there is a need to “enhance cooperation” between the federal and provincial agencies working for disaster relief.

While responsibility was at a district and provincial level, the funding was not, said Naseer Memon, executive director of the NGO Strengthening Participatory Organization.

“The PDMAs are under-resourced; they do not have trained and capable staff; provincial governments do not invest resources to recruit experienced and trained people in PDMAs… As for the DDMAs, to all intents and purposes they do not exist. Unless PDMAs and DDMAs are strengthened in every respect, the situation will not improve,” he said.

“The government has laid the foundations for a more disaster resilient country. Now it needs to complete the task,” said Arif Jabbar Khan, country director for Oxfam. “This can be done by ensuring that provincial and district officials have enough resources and expertise to respond to disasters but also by ensuring that vulnerable communities are better prepared for any unforeseen emergencies.”

He said first responders in an emergency such as district officials, local administrations, local emergency services and communities - needed “much more” support to be effective.

Pakistan has a history of major natural disasters including earthquakes, cyclones and monsoon flooding. The World Risk Report 2012 (the latest published) says the country has a high level of vulnerability to natural hazards, and is ranked ninth worst for “adaptive capacities” to resist such disasters.

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Theme (s): Disaster Risk Reduction, Early Warning, Environment, Natural Disasters,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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