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Waiting for disaster

Earlier this week, at least 15 people were killed when incessant snow inundated the entire village of Shershal in Chitral as well as a nearby security checkpost. As usual, the state was too late to respond and the only reason the casualties weren’t much higher is because a local NGO warned residents to evacuate the village. Now, with snowfall still blocking many roads in the area, a glacier is rapidly gliding its way towards Arando village in Gilgit-Baltistan. As of now, there is very little the authorities can do since the village cannot be reached by road or air. The government has dispatched a team on foot but it will take two to three days to reach the village, by which time most of the destruction will have been wrought. What needs to change is the way we think about disasters. Rather than waiting till it is too late, there should be plans in place to contain the damage before it occurs. It should have been the provincial and federal disaster management authorities, rather than an NGO, which evacuated the village before it was submerged. It is only the government that can forcibly evacuate an area and which has the capability to ensure everyone is safely taken to a safer place.

The country’s disaster management authorities seem only to operate at a time of crisis even though help is needed for months afterward. Those who have been affected by natural disasters need shelter, food and water after fleeing their homes. In some cases, it can be months before they are able to return home. After that, their homes have to rebuilt and compensation given to them for the economic losses they have suffered. In Shershal, all the livestock perished in the avalanche and now its residents, whenever they come back, will need to be provided the means to earn a livelihood. Right now, the government is not prepared to do that. It was only through sheer luck that a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that Gwadar, Pasni and Makran in Balochistan on Wednesday did not cause any casualties Even there, relief teams are yet to reach some of the more remote areas so we cannot be sure of the damage caused. Pakistan is vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and floods while the country’s northern areas are hit by severe snow every winter. That we still seem to be taken by surprise by entirely predictable natural disasters shows just how unprepared the state is.

Editorial. Waiting for disaster. The News, February 10, 2017.

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