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Disaster-prone villages in south Pakistan trained in early warning

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 2 Dec 2013 04:04 PM
Members of the Thatta village disaster management committee carry out emergency evacuation drills, and practise search and rescue operations, in southern Pakistan. TRF/Aamir Saeed
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THATTA, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thanks to training in how to keep safe from storms, fisherman Muhammad Siddique and his colleagues in southern Pakistan’s Thatta district now know when they should stay on dry land.

“The early warning teams update us daily on the sea’s condition, and we avoid going fishing if it is rough and dangerous,” said Siddique, who lives around 98 km (60 miles) east of Karachi, near a salt-water creek.

Development agencies in Pakistan have started building the ability of local communities to protect themselves from natural hazards like cyclones and floods, with the aim of minimising human and economic losses.

A community disaster risk management project, called Tahafuz (Protection), was recently completed in four disaster-prone districts of Pakistan’s southerly Sindh province by the Rural Support Programmes Network, one of the country’s largest development agencies reaching over 33 million rural inhabitants.

“It was a challenge for us to train and educate people in disaster risk reduction, as this was one of the first projects of its kind in Pakistan,” said Akbar Raza, who managed the Tahafuz project funded by the U.S. government.

The main focus was to train selected people from 232 villages in four districts - Thatta, Badin, Umerkot and Tharparkar - to provide early warning of potential disasters.

Overall, 1,173 people received training, including 572 women. “Women are often the first responders to disasters as men are usually at work or outside the town if calamities hit in the daytime,” Raza said.

Local people were also assisted to assess the risks they face and the resources they have for combating them, as well as mapping hazards – with the aim of making it easier for them to avoid dangerous situations turning into disasters.

The Rural Support Programmes Network is planning to extend the training to another 228 villages in the same four districts later this month. “This is an ongoing project and will soon be expanded to other parts of the country,” Raza said.

KITS AND COMMITTEES

Besides early warning and capacity building, Raza said people have been helped to form disaster management committees at village and district level.

“These committees are responsible to alert the people in case of any calamity, for they are also connected with respective district governments and local meteorological departments,” he explained.

The local early warning teams have been provided with some 200 pocket radios and 20 emergency kits.

“The early warning teams are interconnected, and they have the cell phone numbers of all the 1,173 people in the four districts,” Raza said. Their job is to warn residents in their respective areas ahead of any torrential rains, floods, cyclones or other extreme weather.

Each emergency kit includes flashlights, buckets, shovels, a ladder, tents, wheelbarrows, safety helmets, life jackets, rubber tubes, waterproof bags and first aid materials.

Fisherman Siddique said more people should be trained and given emergency equipment in his district. “These are the real things that empower people and help them deal with untoward situations,” he said.

POLICY BUT LITTLE ACTION

Large parts of Pakistan have suffered from climate-linked disasters in the past several years – particularly flooding caused by heavy monsoon rains. Some communities have been hit by monsoon floods four years in a row, starting in 2010 when around 18 million people were affected after the Indus River and its tributaries overflowed from the north to the south of the country.

Pakistan’s National Climate Change Policy calls for building the disaster risk management capacities of young professionals and vulnerable communities, as well as training government officials to reduce disaster losses.

But experts say it has not been put into practice. “Little has been done at the government level to implement the policy,” said Qamaruz Zaman, a lead author of the policy and an advisor on climate change at LEAD Pakistan, an independent research organisation in Islamabad.

“The government is preoccupied with other challenges like terrorism and the energy crisis. Therefore, issues related to climate change remain on the backburner,” he said.

Environmental expert Pervaiz Amir, a former member of the prime minister’s task force on climate change, said Pakistan is among the countries that will be hit hardest by the effects of global warming in the coming years.

Local early warning systems, community training and communication via cell phones and radios have helped Bangladesh and Japan minimise losses caused by natural disasters, he added.

Pakistan should learn from these countries and focus on community-based training and capacity building of disaster-prone people to better deal with calamities,” he said.

The government should install weather stations in all coastal areas to generate timely information about weather conditions, Amir proposed. “It is a cheap but very effective system,” he said, adding that a standard weather station costs between $800 and $1,000.

The authorities should also include lessons on natural disasters in the school syllabus, so that children understand hazards and what to do when they occur, he suggested. 

“Children should be given practical training in schools through emergency drills on how to prepare and deal with disasters,” Amir said.

Soldiers in the armed forces and civil defence should also received specialised training as they are often the first line of protection against natural disasters, he added.

Aamir Saeed is a journalist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at aamirsaeed@ymail.com

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