Bumpy road to rehabilitation

Pakistan: after the natural the social desaster
by Naseer Memon, Pakistan
Floods have now receded, leaving a trail of devastation behind. Deep scars of this disaster would take years to heal. Although relief phase is yet to end but concomitant to that more arduous phases of early recovery and rehabilitation can't afford any delay. The camp life ordeal of affectees would soon get over yet their suffering would only change its form as they return to their uprooted abodes.

Early recovery typically requires rapid assessment that may help initiating a transition from life saving to life sustaining activities in the affected areas. This phase entails issues like resettlement, livelihood restoration, rebuilding of basic infrastructure and planning for effective rehabilitation phase. The major challenge in this phase would be the magnitude of physical disaster. The scale of mammoth challenge can be gauged from the damage data. According to NDMA's update of 23rd December, over 1.9 houses are damaged in the country. Sindh province appears to be the worst hit accounting for over 1.1 million damaged houses.

Estimates of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, government offices, culverts do not appear in this report. However, various other reports provide information on these aspects. A report of UNESCO puts the number of damaged schools to 10,000 that corresponds to 1.5 to 2.5 million students affected. Punjab government's initial estimates reckon the damages to the tune of Rs67 billion. Website of PDMA Sindh shows staggering damage estimate of Rs446 billion.

Sector-wise breakup shows housing and agriculture as the worst-hit sectors in Sindh with estimates of Rs134 and 122 billion respectively. Secretary Industries Department of Sindh has confirmed that 67 industrial units in Sindh have been damaged. Similarly the Sindh Agriculture Department estimates agriculture losses at 102 billion rupees. A report of the UNOCHA on 10th August mentioned that 281 bridges and 283 roads were affected in KPK [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa]. Balochistan fretfully decried underestimation of its damages. In the long and short, volume of damages is mind-boggling and that explains the lurking ramifications of the bumpy road to rehabilitation. Putting together federal cabinet was informed that the colossal losses are estimated to US$ 43 billion, nearly 25% of the nominal GDP of Pakistan.

Early recovery in the affected areas would demand greater focus on agriculture and its extended strands of livelihood. Since most of the affected areas, specially in Punjab and Sindh, have their economy embedded in agriculture, immediate attention is required to secure winter sowing, mainly wheat that guarantees staple diet for millions of households. Any laxity in this would precariously push the rural economy and livelihood to the brink of collapse that may eventually culminate into a perilous social chaos. To avert this risk, government will have to work on a war-footing mainly for dewatering of submerged swathes, repairing field channels and regulators and mobilising seed, fertilizer and other inputs.

Paucity of supplies would skyrocket prices, initially of inputs and subsequently of commodities. Efficient management of winter crop would partially assuage the miseries for affectees as the local economy would get a shot in the arm with good harvest. This would bring respite for the edgy government and rehabilitation phase would also become less turbulent.

Rehabilitation phase is targeted to restore life to pre-disaster stage. This stage has to focus both on individual affectees and public services. Many experts of disaster management consider rehabilitation as an opportunity of better rebuilding through ameliorated planning, infusing socio-economic reforms, redefining imperatives of rural economy and reconstructing infrastructure as disaster-resistant and environmentally sustainable.

Rebuilding major infrastructure and reshaping socio-economic vista require meticulous planning and a turbocharged institutional array to make this transition wrinkle-free. The Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank has also indicated in its report that Pakistan has a unique opportunity to introduce land and irrigation reforms for long term political and economic gains. The report suggests that the disaster also presents an opportunity to redress or to begin to redress, the long-standing land rights issue related to powerful landlords and indebted tenants in areas like Balochistan, Sindh and Southern Punjab.

Likewise, better land use planning can help rebuilding environmentally sustainable human settlements. Stemming from shear lack of land use planning, villages and towns in Pakistan have become breeding grounds for social strains and environmental nightmares. Unbridled sprawl of villages and towns have completely disregarded the fundamentals of development. Over the years major infrastructure schemes were implemented in the flood prone areas.

A vicious web of private dykes, illegal irrigation channels and other imprudent creatures was recklessly allowed to sneak into the flood plains. How this environmentally myopic development multiplied the damages need to be delved. Rehabilitation phase is a heaven-sent opportunity to rectify these gaffes. Land reforms, especially judicious allocation of katchha land and recovering illegally occupied tracts of riverine forest would be the best harvest of this worst disaster.

The insurmountable challenge, however, would be convincing the ruling elite to let it happen unhindered. Since the fragile democratic dispensation stands on the crutches of unscrupulous landed aristocracy, such reforms look like a distant dream. Otherwise erasing social imbalances would provide bedrock foundation to democracy in Pakistan.

The major challenge in rehabilitation would be resource mobilisation. Ever bulging security cost has hemorrhaged the cash-strapped government from its residual liquidity. According to newspaper reports the federal budget has recently been defaced by major changes into defense and development allocation. The former has been allocated additional Rs110 billion and the later has been drained by Rs73 billion, leaving development kitty in pallor.

Council of Common Interest announced a compensation of Rs100,000 for every affectee family but the provinces are too impoverished to afford this. The Advisor for Planning and Development in Sindh has already conceded that the slim purse of the province can't afford 190 billion rupees required for the purpose. The international aid response had been sluggish due to medley of reasons. The UN has launched "Pakistan Floods Emergency Response Plan" seeking US$ 2 billion.

The plan aims to provide humanitarian relief and early recovery assistance to up to 14 million people through 483 projects. The anemic treasury needs aid injection to foot the rehabilitation bill that would run into several billion dollars. There is a need of massive public sector investment to reinvigorate the caved-in economy in the affected areas.

This investment, however, should not be restricted to dole outs; it should rather follow the 'New Deal' paradigm of socio-economic recovery of US after Great Depression in 1930s. President Roosevelt declared it a peacetime emergency and established Federal Emergency Relief Administration that pumped money in "work relief" operations. Huge projects of roads, bridges, schools and other public works were rolled out that generated jobs for 4 million citizens.

Such a model would proffer multiple benefits of rebuilding public services, rejuvenating the tormented local markets and creating much needed employment for affectees. Creating exclusive small and medium enterprise corridors in urban areas fueled through soft loans would also help affectees to recuperate from crisis. In presence of heavy debt servicing and ballooning defense expenditure, little is left for public sector development, which complicates the dilemma of civilian governments. Considering these harsh realities, rehabilitation phase immediately requires an all encompassing master plan before rolling out muddled development schemes. The plan may comprise short term, medium term and long term targets coupled by a strategy to mobilize resources and efficiently investing them to achieve strategic socio-economic gains.