Natural Disaster or Unpreparedness?
Safety & Security Today had a conversation with Mr. Ali Tauqeer Sheikh who is Climate Change Specialist & Director Asia Climate & Development Knowledge Network (CDKN)
Safety & Security Today (S&ST): Considering your expertise on climate change, what do you see as the root cause of natural disasters in Pakistan growing at a potential scale? Is it the lack of mitigation efforts or the impact of climate change?
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh (ATS): Firstly, we need to know that there are never natural disasters; what we name natural disasters are those that come as consequences of human interactions with natural vulnerability. For Example, when a stone falls off a mountain, nobody will get hurt or injured unless they come in its way and aren’t sustainable enough. Likewise, a hurricane wouldn’t harm anybody unless there’s a boat entrapped, a boat might be destroyed but a stronger ship would withhold the impact. Disasters occur only when they come in contact with human infrastructures that are vulnerable. The impact of natural disaster is proportionally linked to the quality and resilience of planning, infrastructure and preparedness. Just as houses in a good locality are well prepared to flood than the ones which are in slums. Similar to this, we can compare the situation that occurred in Balochistan in which due to floods, the mud houses were washed away; if they were having a resilient infrastructure they could have survived by moving to the first floor or rooftop after the water came in. So, it is the preparedness that protects from natural calamities like flooding, earthquake, etc. but this doesn’t advocate the fact that climate change is not there. It is climate change that is making the frequency and veracity of these events increase day by day.
S&ST: How do you view the contemporary situation of floods and the role of climate change?
ATS: The loss and damage from climate change are mostly due to inadequate preparedness. It is very rare to suffer an absolute damage when all the pre-emptive measures are in place. I went to Japan sometime back and my stay at a hotel was on the 80th floor. In the morning news I got to know there was an earthquake of 7 magnitudes last night. It went unnoticed because of their resilient infrastructure if it was Pakistan, it could have a significant impact. Similarly, even for extreme weather, solutions are available. In Pakistan the situation is different, climate change is undoubtedly there but it also exposes our poor planning, infrastructure and resilience. Monsoon currents come from the Bay of Bengal, the current comes passing through India to Pakistan, enters Kashmir, then KP, then Northern Punjab raining all across these areas and then comparatively weaker current moves toward Sindh and Balochistan. Balochistan and Sindh are comparatively weak monsoon areas. This time, the currents went towards the Arabian Sea from India and then entered Karachi creating a stronger impact of rains, then it went to Balochistan where it caused an extensive number of rains, being said that the infrastructure was weak. It couldn’t withhold the impact of floods. Similar situation occured in South Punjab, when the currents entered. Additionally, the glaciers also melted at a high rate in Northern areas with multiple cloud bursts, served as a cause of flood calamity. We can name it a climate change-triggered disaster, calling it only flooding is injustice. All of this wrecked the combination of poverty, ill-preparedness and weak infrastructure in the worst possible way. Another reason for this unprecedented damage was that the way of water to flush out was blocked with infrastructure, irregular developments and deforestation.
S&ST: What makes Pakistan so vulnerable to natural calamities considering the fact that it is a very low carbon emitter?
ATS: The notion of Pakistan being a low carbon emitter is factually not correct, Out of 200 countries in the world, 60 are having carbon emissions even less than Pakistan. Pakistan is also present in the top 40 emitters of the world, looking into the growth rate of carbon emissions, Pakistan lies in the top 15%.
The claim of Pakistan being a low carbon emitter and having a share of a mere 1% lies in a different context, a number of countries have emissions less than 1% just like Denmark and their economy is doing well but ours isn’t. This delinks the fact that if emissions are high, only then a country can make economic progression. It was true quite a time back but now it has been de-linked, a country can grow economically while keeping the emissions low. The choice of energy production determines the cost of living, Pakistan produces its major chunk of energy from fossil fuels, which is not good for the environment as well as the economy. We as consumers should also look for more environment friendly appliances and those that consume less electricity in the longer run, not those that are cheap. We need to mend our fuel choice, energy production and consumption choices to cover this vulnerability factor for Pakistan.
S&ST: The rising debate of climate change, a problem created by the first world countries due to massive industrialization now being imposed on third world countries and not letting them grow. How valid is the debate?
ATS: The debate of First world and the third world over climate change is undoubtedly very relevant but one needs to comprehend the fact that when the first world went into massive industrialization, they experienced all the inefficient and expensive methods, that being done paved a way for the third world countries to have access to available sustainable solutions that are not only cost effective but efficient too. They learnt it through expensive ways, not only for them but for the Earth in the greater context. We should focus on using the sustainable and efficient alternatives instead of engaging the blame game. The global trend is to delink productivity with resource, material and energy usage, the third world should follow this too.
S&ST: In your analysis of the situation, which areas have been affected the most by these floods?
ATS: After closely looking into the situation Education, Health and Agriculture are the worse impacted sectors. The calamity has destroyed numerous schools, hospitals and crops, this will lead towards children not being able to get education for so many years, the ill not getting enough treatment facilities and worst of all the issue of famine and food security. One family that has been hit by a single flood gets deprived of so many basic necessities and we can calculate the impact by seeing hundreds of thousands of families are hit by this calamity. Generations suffer due to losses like this. The losses are not only limited to lives, livestock and products but it shakes the foundation of the system.
S&ST: Is Pakistan dealing with disaster management in the right way? In what ways it can be improved?
ATS: The only way we can handle a situation like this is preparedness. Preparedness is the only thing that can prevent or at least reduce damage. If the infrastructure is resilient then we can expect the least damage. We need to opt for pre-emptive measures before a calamity takes place to handle an issue like this properly. In a case like this when the damage is done, we can only talk of recovery at a good pace.
All of the areas have suffered a significant loss and are hit badly because of poor planning which multiplied the flood’s impact due to climate change. Hotels that were washed away in KP were affected because of the irregular planning and land encroachment, so when we will block the way of nature it would definitely have an impact. We need to regularize proper planning and plan before the storm hits.
S&ST: With immense displacement and devastation, is rehabilitation possible in near future? How efficiently do we need to work on this phase to prevent other secondary issues?
ATS: It is difficult to map out a time frame for rehabilitation but the impact being this big will take some time to settle things down. What we need to work on is the implementation of resilient development. So that we can reduce the impact in the next monsoon. Subsidized and supervised development can help us reach our goal of planned rehabilitation. The state should be robust in doing all of this before it gets late. But unfortunately, in hindsight this is not being done vigilantly, state is acting lazy and lethargic and not responding effectively in rehabilitation. State is stuck in the assistance provision stage whereas it needs to focus on the greater picture, we will have to spend on same things again if we don’t do it the right way now.
S&ST: Is there any severe danger of food security looming around after the crops have been wiped out in the affected areas?
ATS: With floods and rains, cropping patterns also change. A number of crops have been washed away, one of them is cotton and talking of it, we might have to import cotton in the next season to fill the gap. Same is the case with other crops, the cycle has been disturbed and will take some time to settle down, there are very significant risks of food security looming around. Other than this, the crops grown after settlement will have less nutrients and minerals and this will affect the growth and development of people from these areas.
S&ST: What mitigation efforts do the world needs to take and what do we need to do as a nation to cope with such disasters in future?
ATS: We need to improve our coping capacity to manage disasters in future, we need to improve our early warning system to be able to manage the disaster at a very early stage. We need to improve our construction standards, all of the world has done it and we need to do it too. We need to create a society that is resilient and can withstand pressures of climatic change.
S&ST: What message do you want to give to people about how they can play their individual part in this time of crisis?
ATS: We as a nation should think of more than giving just donations. Giving donations is the easiest way of satisfaction but we need to do more and act as an integral part of the system. We should give all our expertise to help the ones in need. Going beyond a length to help is the key to play our individual part in times of crisis.