Islamabad, Pakistan, 22 February -- Addressing journalists in Islamabad today, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, stressed the importance of building resilience to future floods, just as Pakistan embarks on the reconstruction of flood-affected areas following the devastating floods of July 2010.
While in Pakistan, she met national and provincial officials in Punjab, and visited flood-affected areas in that province. So far, the government had had to make “huge sacrifices” to pay for disaster relief after the floods, she said, speaking at the end of a five-day visit to Pakistan organized by Oxfam.
Economic loss could be mitigated through wise investments in infrastructure, she added. Often in emergencies, among the first buildings to be damaged were clinics, health facilities and schools, indicating the low priority that governments placed on their resilience. “This is unacceptable. Social infrastructure should be protected before any other infrastructure.”
Ms. Wahlström said a global campaign run by UNISDR, the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization on safer hospitals distributes a checklist of indicators that determine the level of physical safety and hospital functionality during a crisis. She said the checklist centers on whether hospital staff were prepared for emergencies, or whether hospitals could manage a crisis while also receiving patients and caring for them.
Immunization campaigns and health education was another example of ways to increase community resilience, she added.
Ms. Wahlström stressed that no country was immune to the impact of natural hazards. “It may seem automatically that richer countries are better prepared. That is not necessarily true. Even though it’s clear that the poorest countries are the most vulnerable, because they have the most to lose, poor populations in rich countries are also vulnerable.”
She said middle income countries were the most vulnerable to the impact of floods and other hazards because, while their assets grow and accumulate, institutional frameworks, capacities, and level of compliance to building codes did not advance as quickly.
Speaking to journalists alongside Ms. Wahlström was Neva Khan, Oxfam’s Pakistan Director, who underlined the difficulty of managing a crisis, whether in rich or poor countries. “We’ve seen from disasters like Katrina, in America, how difficult for it is even for developed countries to respond. It is for this very reason that it’s important to ensure that the right emphasis is put on disaster risk reduction.”
Through her experience at Oxfam, she said she had seen many good disaster risk reduction programmes focusing on health and education. “But they’re all small scale. There needs to be some leadership to make the most of [the lessons learned]. That needs to come at a much higher level than ourselves.”
Commenting on the activity of international donors, Ms. Wahlström said just over 60 per cent of Pakistan’s relief appeal had received funding, indicating good support from donors. But, she added: “They will be even more challenged in the future, when it comes to reconstruction. Floods change their behaviour over time depending on what happens in the Himalayas and melting ice, more silt [in rivers]. But it’s the Pakistan government that must take the lead in deciding on how much they want to do about that, and how quickly.”
At times, aged infrastructure had not kept pace with the changing environment, or with pressure from the growing population. “The excellent flood management and protection system in the United States, built up over 60 years, actually did not work very well because the flood did not behave in a way the system had anticipated,” she said.
“In the past few days, I have – together with Oxfam and a local NGO – been visiting some hard-hit communities. You will be very impressed when you see the resilience and capability of these communities to manage their environment,” she said. “They are very aware of all these limitations but they also have some very good solutions. There are answers within the boundaries of your daily life.”
She also warned of problems of water shortage in the future, saying that Pakistan could become one of the world’s most water-stressed countries. How well countries managed their water resources would be “really crucial for the future,” she said.
(Photo source: Flickr @Oxfam International - http://www.flickr.com/photos/oxfam/4875676284