THE response of Pakistan’s relevant agencies to a string of natural disasters has always been found wanting. Though the recent response to the floods in Punjab was better than expected, the agencies’ performance has been not been nimble-footed historically.
Funding shortage, overlapping mandates and duplication of efforts can be said to be chiefly responsible for this state of affairs. Of these three, funding shortage is too well-known to merit further comment here. However, the other two are equally vital.
For instance, Pakistan is still governed by multiple legal frameworks where the response to natural disasters is concerned. The National Calamities Act 1958 is the oldest legal instrument which (with its provincial equivalents) comes into force whenever a natural disaster strikes. This mechanism activates the pre-Partition relief commissioner system lorded over by the senior-most member of the revenue board.
This legal instrument runs in parallel with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) which has its own provincial and district arms in the form of provincial and district management authorities. This act has remained in force despite the National Disaster Management Act, 2010, which was expected to supplant all other similarly oriented laws as an overarching legislative instrument governing the disaster management system. Yet, in practice, this has not happened.
In the 2010 floods, Punjab worked primarily under the framework of the Calamities Act with the role of the Punjab Disaster Management Authority, as enshrined in the National Disaster Management Act, vastly reduced probably due to centre-province tensions. This time round, however, the PDMA was visible and active in various phases of the flood response and rehabilitation. This augurs well. While some experts are of the view that the 1958 Calamities Act still serves a useful purpose in getting the provincial bureaucracy behind the poorly staffed provincial disaster management authority, there still appears to be a strong case for a sharply delineated role definition of the provincial relief commissioner and the PDMA.
In Sindh, the rehabilitation department has played a highly visible role beside the revenue department. This further complicates the task of role definition and legal clarification. Such clarity is a must if the fledgling disaster management system with its slowly improving provincial management authorities is to gain credibility.
Overlapping mandates have not helped in responding to disaster.
At the national level, the scene is further muddied by the presence of two parallel bodies with similar mandates. The Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority came into being in response to the 2005 earthquake after the short-lived federal relief commissioner system served its initial response and rescue purpose. Erra was conceived for time-limited rehabilitation work. The body was expected to be phased out upon completion of the rehabilitation work.
Almost 10 years on, Erra still stands with its provincial arm also active in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The provincial arm of Erra works in parallel with the KP provincial disaster management authority. Many experts believe that Erra was made superfluous in the aftermath of the promulgation of the 2010 disaster management act. However, contrary to expectations, Erra was given a new lease of life through the Erra Act in 2011. Rather than disbanding it, Erra’s scope was extended to the rest of the country.
This has created considerable confusion. Now both the bodies are headed by the prime minister, resulting in not only duplication of efforts but also division of scarce funds between two bodies charged with more or less similar work and mandate. This duplication of mandates between two bodies has many development experts and donors confused.
The issue of duplication is not confined to this case. The federal emergency relief cell under the prime minister also remains operational despite the formation of the NDMA. Again, the NDMA was expected to step up to assume the role of the relief cell. This overlapping too stands in need of urgent rationalisation in the interest of building up the NDMA superstructure.
In recent years there has been some enhanced investment going into strengthening the role of the NDMA and the provincial authorities. However, this slim piece of good news does not reduce the need for clarifying legal mandates so that the task of constructing a well-funded, well-coordinated and effective national disaster management system remains on course.
While this process goes on, we should not take our eyes off the national flood management plan which has not been framed since the last flood. The new national flood management plan was due to be finalised in 2014. To date the plan has not been published. With so many anomalies already hobbling the disaster management system can we afford to limp on to the next calamity without even a paper-only national flood management plan in place?