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Express Tribune Editorials – 28th March 2016

No escape from disasters

Natural disasters are something that are inevitable in Pakistan. So are they in many other countries, but their vulnerability and the consequences of natural disasters are mitigated by effective pre-planning. For Pakistan, poor governance, corruption, an already weak infrastructure and a chronic inability to implement policies, which reduce risk all aggregate to an artificially heightened vulnerability. Plainly put, we could do a lot better at helping ourselves than is currently the case. This is exposed in data compiled by Verisk Maplecroft, which is a UK-based risk-management company. Pakistan ranks at seven out of the top 10 countries whose populations are acutely exposed to natural disasters. Around 136 million, a startling 70 per cent of our population, are exposed to the range of natural hazards and calamities, which often happen, as in the case of large earthquakes, with no warning whatsoever. With spring rains already having taken their toll in the north and west of the country, we face another year in which flooding of catastrophic proportions is a near certainty. Many areas have not recovered from the floods of previous years, and there are still families living in tented accommodation in the wake of the 2005 earthquake. Flooding is our biggest problem, with 10 million exposed to acute risk and it is only ever going to get worse as global warming affects rainfall pattern and volume. The report notes that in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, there are building codes in place, often rudimentary, but everywhere poorly implemented. Construction continues on floodplains and mountainsides liable to subsidence if they become waterlogged, a far from rare occurrence. Urban planning in Pakistan is often piecemeal or indeed wholly absent, the cities expanding laterally with little regulation or thought for how they will be affected by extreme weather events. Endemic corruption feeds through into a lack of disaster preparedness, and the unfortunate reality is that unless and until known and endemic deficits are rectified, the cumulative effects of natural disasters will only multiply. Self-inflicted wounds are the slowest to heal.

Delays in power projects

Very few things would take priority for the government over its commitment to end power outages in the country by the end of its term in 2018. But when there are reports making the rounds that there could be a possible delay in completing power projects that would help achieve that goal, it is bound to annoy the prime minister. With more than half the PML-N government’s term over, the completion of two crucial projects is likely to be delayed. The authorities are fighting a race against time to complete the Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project and the Tarbela-IV Extension before the general elections. If that does not happen, the prime minister’s hopes of staying true to his word regarding adding thousands of megawatts of electricity to the national grid will be dashed.

The Wapda chairman has repeatedly assured that work on the Tarbela-IV Extension would be completed by June 2017, but a delay is in the offing. Meanwhile, despite cost revisions that have seen the estimate shoot up by over 100 per cent, the Neelum-Jhelum project is also unlikely to be completed on time. The issue with the delays is not just about the projects not being ready to supply much-needed electricity. There are also serious concerns about cost revisions, which will take a great toll on the government’s finances. For long, bureaucratic red tape and an inefficient organisational structure have hindered the country’s development on various fronts. While the government at times is all too ready to boast about the few power projects that have allowed some relief to the energy sector, there still remain important projects, which if not implemented, are likely to derail the progress Pakistan is hoping to make. With energy needs bound to go up, the country can ill-afford to be found wanting in terms of making progress in the power sector. At the same time, despite some reforms being initiated, deep-rooted issues in the sector remain intact. It is of utmost importance that the government ensures the completion of the two said projects in time as Pakistan’s long-term economic progress depends increasingly on resolving our energy needs.

The Iranian connection

President Hassan Rowhani of Iran and his delegation have returned home, and both sides will consider the last two days work as time well spent. Iran is fast emerging as an important trading partner and energy supplier. Work on the much-delayed gas pipeline is far advanced on the Iranian side and needs to be put on fast-forward in Pakistan. Iran is said to be able to provide gas for Pakistan “within a few months” – welcome news in the light of the current gas shortages nationally. The project has been dogged by difficulty and delay from the outset. It is to be hoped that the path is now clear for it to reach fruition. Iran already sells 1,000MW of electricity to Pakistan and this is to be increased to 3,000MW.

Bilateral trade volumes are to be increased to $5 billion annually by 2021. Trade between Iran and Pakistan has dropped significantly as a by-product of the sanctions imposed on Iran, but with the majority of these now lifted or in the process of being lifted, there is good reason to believe that previous trade levels can be restored and exceeded.

Rowhani’s visit has put meat on the bones of a strategic partnership that is being reshaped in line with the general overhaul of foreign policy in Pakistan – and in Iran in the newly relaxed environment. Energy and infrastructure are the most visible signs of a shift, but there are deeper movements in geopolitical relationships regionally that Pakistan is a party to, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor being the catalyst for much of what is turning into bilateral agreements and MoUs. The interdependency of contiguous states none of which has territorial aspirations in respect of one another has enormous potential for all, but there are risks. Security is the elephant in the room and Pakistan is far from being secure. There are clear and present threats to some of the proposed projects, and energy infrastructure is difficult to protect and defend in its entirety. That said – and presumably understood by all concerned – we warmly welcome these timely developments.

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