Some of the world’s most devastating natural disasters have occurred in Pakistan – a country already facing poverty and terrorism.
In the past five years, more than 23 million Pakistanis have been affected by severe earthquakes and floods.
And between 2005 and 2010, nearly 100,000 deaths were caused by natural disasters.
After a tumultuous decade, Naeem Sahoutara investigates what lessons Pakistan has drawn.
Residents of Islamabad are very familiar with earthquakes. Pakistan’s capital city is located on a seismic fault line that runs through several countries in South Asia.
Kashif Ahmed, works as a guard in the city, but in October 2005, his village of Neelum, in a scenic part of Kashmir, was flattened by a powerful earthquake.
“I was busy working at home when the earthquake struck. Within five to six minutes it grew dark, and everything was covered in dust,” recalls Ahmed, “The mountains turned into particles of dust and our houses were flattened to the ground.”
The 7.6-magnitude quake caused widespread destruction – killing nearly 80,000 people and displacing 3.5 million others.
It was the worst disaster the country had ever seen and at the time, the government had limited mechanisms in place to cope.
But two years later the government established the National Disaster Management Authority, or the NDMA.
Ahmed Kamal, the spokesperson for the agency says that a decade on, Pakistan is much better prepared and coordinated.
“As far as preparedness is concerned all the federal and provincial departments concerned work under a single umbrella, which exists at the provincial, district and local level,” he says, “At the federal level, the National Disaster Management Authority creates the national contingency plan, especially for meteorological disasters.”
In 2010 big floods caused by heavy rainfall inundated a fifth of the country. Around 2,000 people died while 20 million lost their homes and livelihood.
While the coordination structures were in place, poor management marred rehabilitation efforts.
But Kamal says the government has learned its lessons.
“In the case of any natural disaster the most important thing is how we respond to it. It is real time response, or delayed? We’ve learned lessons from the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods, we’ve set-up human resource facilities in every province,” he says, “Its purpose is to respond quickly by providing food and non-food items from the nearest center within the shortest possible time. This year we’ve also made a major achievement by launching a free SMS warning dissemination facility.”
An initiative from the government and private cellular companies, SMS text messages warning citizens about floods and quakes are now regularly sent out to 52 million people across the country when a disaster strikes.
The SMS system is the first phase of the country’s early warning system and has been well received so far.
The agency claims the SMS alerts saved many people during last year’s monsoon flooding in the eastern province of Punjab.
But some 150 kilometers from the NDMA office, a housing project to resettle 2,000 families displaced by the 2005 earthquake is yet to be completed.
Analysts like writer Tahir Malik say the government needs to improve governance-related issues.
“Of course there is some improvement, but I don’t think the government has learned lessons from previous experiences,” he says, “In the severe floods of the 1980s a lot of international aid money poured in from the international community. After the 2005 earthquake the international community’s response was appreciated. But, the government is only interested in getting money. We should also equip ourselves to handle such calamities.”
The government is currently working with hundreds of non-profit organizations to work in different sectors like risk reduction and rehabilitation in the event of any natural disaster.
Experts like Dr Manzoor, from Oxfam, say the government has taken positive steps, but needs to be focus more on disaster risk reduction.
“It’s important to strengthen provincial disaster management authorities with specific experts on disaster risk reduction,” he says, “And then the government has to really work hard and support overall the humanitarian community to come and work easily to share the role with the government...
And improved coordination from the national to local levels, will make a huge difference, he says.
“If coordination is improved, it will improve the humanitarian response and reduce risks,” he says, “This will help reducing losses and at the same time saving the lives of the people and a sustainable way of managing disasters in Pakistan.”
But until that happens, experts fear Pakistan is ill-prepared to deal with a future natural disaster.