Few disaster management professionals have worked on as many important assignments as Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed (Retired) has. Currently, he is the CEO of the National Disaster Risk Management Fund, responsible for enhancing the country’s risk resilience against natural disasters and climate change. He has previously held top positions at Federal Relief Commission, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Earthquake Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA).
Following the devastating 2005 earthquake, as Chief Military Coordinator at the Federal Relief Commission, he supervised and implemented the earthquake relief operations for both civil and military.
As Deputy Chairman of ERRA, he strategized and supervised the recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction of the 2005 earthquake-affected regions, spanning over 30,000 kilometers and affecting 3.5 million people.
As Chairman of the NDMA, he led his team in responding to several disasters, including the Hunza landslide and Attabad Lake crisis, Cyclone PHET, Air Blue crash in Islamabad, evacuation of 250 stranded Pakistani students from Kyrgyzstan, and the floods in 2010.
He served as a Special Advisor to the UN, World Food Programme (WFP) Pakistan in managing assistance to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He also advised the World Bank in the development/formulation of Disaster Recovery Framework Guide, for WB’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
He headed a Special Support Group for IDPs to support efforts of the provincial government and the international humanitarian community for assisting people displaced by the fighting in Swat and FATA, followed by safe, voluntary, assisted and sustainable return of over 2 million IDPs within a period of just 6 months.
The following pages carry excerpts of a recent conversation with Lieutenant General Nadeem in Islamabad.
Safety and Security Today (S&ST): Tell us a bit about the history of disaster management in Pakistan?
Lt General Nadeem Ahmed (Retired): Pakistan has faced disasters in the past but these disasters in the forms of floods were periodical. To manage these disasters the government implemented a rather straight forward plan. To tackle the damage done by floods under the Calamities Act of 1958, the farmers whose crops were hit by floods were relieved from paying Water Tax and Agricultural Tax. Similarly, we did face some earthquakes before 2005 but our response was not structural, and it merely included paying compensation to the affected people. This is all we had in terms of ‘disaster management’ for a very long time.
S&ST: How did you enter the field of disaster management?
My first encounter with disaster management was back in 1977, I was posted in Chiniot at that time and there was a super flood that caused massive devastation. Our unit was tasked to take boats and help people stranded in low lying areas. Then in 2003, I was commanding the Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) in Gilgit. During this time there was an earthquake at the base of Nanga Parbat, it was a strange phenomenon and the shock waves kept coming for months. Since the area is mountainous and relief and rescue were impossible without helicopters, so it fell upon me to extricate people. When the 2005 quake struck, I was the Vice Chief of General Staff. On the fourth day after the quake, I was assigned to work at the Federal Relief Commission as a Chief Military Coordinator. After the relief part, that went on from October till March 2005, a reconstruction organization was created, called ERRA. Subsequently, I was appointed as the Deputy Chairman of the authority. This is when we started the early recovery and reconstruction effort.
After that, I went to command a corps and it was a time when counterinsurgency operations in Swat had started and there was a huge influx of displaced people coming out of Swat. I was asked to look after the IDPs. I managed the entire IDP crisis and by the time I retired in 2010 I was well known in the field of disaster management and was asked to join the NDMA which I did as the chairman.
S&ST: How did you receive the Honorary Doctorate in Disaster Management?
When I was doing earthquake reconstruction I got recognition from within Pakistan thrice. I was awarded the Sitara-e-Esar, I am a recipient of the Shah-e-Hamadan Gold Medal presented by Azad Kashmir Government. I have also been given the international award known as the UN Habitat Scroll of Honour at The Hague, Netherlands. I received all these awards for my work for earthquake relief and reconstruction. In recognition of my services, I was awarded the Honorary Doctorate in Disaster Management from the University of Huddersfield, UK. They also asked me to teach at the varsity, but I did not want to leave Pakistan, so I declined the offer.
S&ST: Where did we lack in terms of response to disasters before 2005?
Technically once you have provided compensation there should be research on how to minimize damage in the future. Questions like whether only earthquake resilient construction should be allowed in quake-prone areas and should construction should be allowed in the river bed area, should have been settled. But since there was no structured thought such things were never given serious consideration. Even laws that existed and prohibited certain practices to minimize losses from potential disasters were never implemented.
S&ST: When was it realized that we are lagging in disaster management?
The realization came when the 2005-earthquake hit. We realized that were hardly any laws for construction in rural areas, there was no concept of inspection of building materials, even architectural drawings were not approved by any government department, particularly in rural areas. In rural areas, the situation was aggravated because even the few laws that existed had no compliance.
S&ST: What was the impact of the absence of building laws and lack of compliance?
We suffered a tremendous loss of lives due to this very reason. The 2005 earthquake struck at around 08:50 am, at this time most of the children were in schools. Since the construction in most areas was done without following building codes, it resulted in a catastrophe of unimaginable scale. As many as 6000 schools were flattened by the quake, more harrowingly we lost 25,000 students and teachers. This is when we realized that we have no institution to tackle such a catastrophe. Apart from the immense and irreplaceable loss of lives, the 2005 earthquake caused us monetary damage of more than $6 billion.
S&ST: How and when was the NDMA formed?
The 2005 quake left us with numerous harsh lessons, the major being that we need to move from our current response centric approach towards a proactive approach, through which we can mitigate risks from disasters hence controlling the damage.
The government was wise enough to establish the NDMA, an implementing, coordinating and monitoring body for disaster management.
The organization is overseen by the National Disaster Management Commission (a policy-making body), headed by the prime minister. Other members of the Commission include Chief Ministers of all provinces, Prime Minister Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Leader of Opposition in Senate and National Assembly, Minister for Defense, Health and Foreign Affairs, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chairman NDMA among others.
The initiative wasn’t stopped there, provincial and district management authorities were also formed, after realizing that response to any disaster has to come at ground level. It was also decided to establish a National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) to train people in disaster management. Right now, there is some need for capacity building at NIDM, but it is on track and I am hopeful that it will be achieved soon.
It also became apparent that in case of a disaster bureaucratic impediments mean that grants and sanctions for even basic facilities like shelter and clean water take too long, hampering the relief process. So, it was agreed that there should be a national fund exclusively dedicated to disaster management and relief. The NDMA now has a Rupees one billion fund for this purpose. A national disaster management force was also established that also has highly trained urban search and rescue team.
S&ST: How has climate change impacted Pakistan?
While we were dealing with the 2005-quake, the effects of climate change were also becoming visible. It was around this time that the country started witnessing climate change induced events like cyclones, glacial lake outburst floods, drought the monsoon pattern became erratic. The changes in the monsoon pattern and the shifting of the monsoon epicenter around 100 kilometers west (towards Peshawar) from Punjab created further problems. A few decades back the monsoon delivered most rains in areas that form the catchment area of our two big dams, the Mangla and Tarbela. But since the monsoon epicenter shifted towards Peshawar we were faced with a new dilemma. There are no dams to cater to rains in this area and this causes floods downstream in the Kabul and Indus, causing massive devastation.
S&ST: Can we consider militancy as a disaster?
Partly yes, and unfortunately as the natural disasters started hitting the country more frequently, our problems were compounded by the man-made disaster in the form of effects of militancy. The United States of America invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was detrimental for Pakistan as the country had to deal with militancy within its borders that transpired into a major man-made disaster. The losses we suffered, as a result, were colossal.
S&ST: Can damage by disasters be reduced by risk mitigation?
I’ll explain this to you by an example. Before the monsoon season every year, a coordination conference is held at the NDMA (before the NDMA was formed, this conference was held by the Armed Forces Engineering Directorate). The conference is attended by representatives of all provinces, people from the meteorological and irrigation department, reps from NDMA and Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA). A few months before the 2010 floods, I was heading the NDMA, so I am privy to details. After the coordination conference that year the cost effectiveness of proposals to mitigate risk from monsoon was calculated at around $400 million. As the head of NDMA, I took the proposals to the then Prime Minister, but his response was that after the eighteenth amendment these issues come under the domain of provinces. As a result, we were not provided the money to implement these proposals. The point of telling this story is that had we been provided the required $400 million we could have avoided the losses to the tune of $10 billion we incurred in the 2010 flood.
Subsequently, we also pointed to international donors that money spent on prevention is more effective than money spent on relief activities. The problem with international donors is that they have envelopes for only development and relief. When we approach them for grants for risk mitigation, they used to point out that they don’t have much budget for development and if we want donations for prevention that money has to be taken out from the development budget. I personally went to different countries and pointed out that hefty spending on relief is a flawed concept when there is a need to spend on prevention. I am happy to report that now the world has realized that money spent on prevention is money well spent. This eventually resulted in the formation of the National Disaster Risk Management Fund (NDRMF), and I have the unique privilege to be the first Chief Executive Officer of this organization.
The initial financing of NDRMF is through a $200m loan of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to the federal government and two grants worth $3.4m from Australia and $1.5m from Switzerland. The ADB plans to enhance its funding beyond $1 billion over the next decade. A number of other countries are also interested in providing funding.
The organization will be providing grants (It will finance up to 70 percent costs of eligible projects) for subprojects that will contribute towards enhancing Pakistan’s resilience to climatic and other natural hazards and to strengthen the government’s ability to quickly respond to disasters triggered by natural hazards.
The NDRMF will be focusing on projects based on thematic areas identified under two umbrella documents of National Disaster Management Program (NDMP) and National Flood Protection Plan (NFPP-IV). It will also help the government in complying with international and national commitments like Hyogo Framework, Paris Agreement, Sendai Framework, Vision 2025 and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
S&ST: How do you compare the disaster management capability of Pakistan with other countries?
I’d like to say that as far as knowledge of disaster management goes, Pakistan is probably ahead of most countries. I say this because in Pakistan we have tackled all kinds of disasters from earthquakes and flood to cyclones and drought. Moreover, we have faced complex emergencies successfully. World over complex emergencies (militancy) takes decades to root out. But in Pakistan we tackled the problem of a deadly militancy in a short time, the first wave came after the U.S. attack Afghanistan in 2001 and now by 2018 we are done with it. We have gone through a full spectrum of physical disaster management and are now in the position to tell the world of our experiences in this area.
In fact, I am proud to say that we are a pioneer in terms of many ideas in the field of disaster management. For instance, the cluster approach of disaster management was first implemented in Pakistan and now it is globally recognized as an effective approach. Similarly, the concept of cash dispensation among the affectees through smart cards was first successfully implemented in Pakistan.
SS&T: What is risk reduction, risk assessment and, risk transfer?
When you talk about risk reduction, the most basic need is a risk assessment. For risk assessment, we use a tool called Multi Hazard Vulnerability Risk Assessment (MHVRA). Let me explain how MHVRA works, let us assume we are carrying the vulnerability risk assessment for district Sanghar, first we will monitor what kind of risks are there in Sanghar (drought, flooding, probability of earthquake). This risk is defined into layers on which the return period is provided (meaning after how long one disaster can occur again). It also provides data on the area that will be hit by a disaster. This information is linked with the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) database, through this data we can pinpoint the exact number of people that will be affected by a disaster and their demographics. This allows us to provide compensation and emergency relief in an efficient manner. The MHVRA further helps in devising a response. Similarly, the MHRVA can tell the number of schools, bridges and dispensaries constructed on a fault line, which we can retrofit i.e. invest in risk reduction.
After identification and reduction in any risk, we can take further action through risk transfer. This means that once you have identified risk and reduced it to a certain extent possible, the residual risk is transferred. There are many ways through which risk is transferred. Risk can be transferred through insurance, catastrophe bonds, even the World Bank has a facility called catastrophe draw down option that can be utilized. In the risk transfer category, livestock and crop insurance are two services that have very high acceptability in Punjab and Sindh.
S&ST: Are you satisfied with the role of media when it comes to disaster management?
We all know media thrives on sensation. Good news is no news for media and bad is great news. To address this very issue the National Institute of Disaster Management conducted training for media personnel on how to cover disasters. The crux of this training was that media coverage should be objective, there is no need to attach negativity to any event. When major disasters happen, it takes time for the government to mobilize resources, so media must consider these limitations.
S&ST: Have any steps being taken for disaster management capacity building at local level?
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has established relief hubs in every region. There are five to six regional hubs. Rubb halls have also been established in the most vulnerable districts. These rubb halls have a capacity to handle three hundred thousand people in case of a disaster (with plans to take the capacity to five hundred thousand). In case of disasters first responders i.e. the local communities play the most important role, building capacity of these local communities is a high priority area for NDRMF, the term we use for this is Community Based Disaster Risk Management (CBDRM). We offer them training and provide basic tools used in disaster management.
S&ST: Do you think Pakistan is prepared for climate change?
As of now, we are not fully prepared, but we are working on issues like drought management. When it comes to climate change one of the key areas we need to work on is water management and this is an area where international donors are also interested in providing grants and aid. In Pakistan, we need a major policy shift and work on water management and conservation as we are wasting millions of acre-feet of water each year because of our outdated water management system. Similarly, due to changing weather patterns we also need to work towards new seed and crop varieties.