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Pakistan's cities wake up to climate threats

by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio | @saleemzeal | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 16 January 2012 10:39 GMT

Improving institutional capacity, public awareness and funding will be key to preparing for climate disaster challenges, experts say

KARACHI, Pakistan (AlertNet) – Alerts last June from the Pakistan Meteorological Department about a fast-approaching tropical cyclone, urging the evacuation of communities along the coastline of the southern city of Karachi, are still fresh in Haleema Memon’s memory.

“The warnings created a hue and cry in settlements along the shoreline and in other parts of the city… as it caught us unprepared,” recalled the 45-year-old mother of five, who lives in Ibrahim Hyderi, a fishing settlement on Karachi’s outskirts with her husband, a fisherman. “The people fled to take refuge in central and northern parts of the city as the storm brewed.”

Muzamil Ali, who lives in a sea-front villa in the up-market Karachi neighborhood of Clifton, says residents had no option but to vacate their homes quickly and rush to safer places far from the beach, leaving their possessions behind.

“The streets had a deserted look and all commercial activities came to a complete halt amid the panic that griped the entire city,” he says. “I could hear the gushing winds that were hitting the barrier wall at the seaside.”

But not everyone received adequate notice of the storm. Many fishermen’s relatives, with good reason, were desperately worried about the safety of their loved ones out at sea.

“My husband never came back,” said 35-year-old Ayesha Mallah. “It was too late for (him) and others on the fishing vessel. … The warnings were sounded some 18 hours after they had embarked on the journey.”

Mallah says dozens of fishermen who went missing in the storm may well have postponed their trip if they had received more timely information about the cyclone.

That is one reason environmentalists are pressing city authorities to draw up an effective strategy to protect its fast-growing population from disasters.

“Such plans will help mitigate risks and mortalities if any natural disaster strikes,” said Karachi-based Tahir Qureshi, a coastal ecosystem adviser at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Pakistan.


With a population of nearly 20 million, the sprawling port city of Karachi – which covers 3,527 square km (1,362 square miles) and is nearly four times larger than Hong Kong - is vulnerable to a range of natural disasters, from storms to earthquakes. It is also grappling with the threat of rising sea levels.

Addressing the threats will take a range of interventions, experts say.

Qureshi, for instance, believes efforts to boost mangrove forests, which can act as natural barriers to disasters in coastal areas, should be a key focus. Cutting of mangroves has paved the way for sea intrusion and made the city less resilient to hazards like storms, he says.

But improving institutional capacity and public awareness, and seeking enough funding to make the changes, will be equally important, experts say. Many climate and environmental scientists point to Pakistan’s problems dealing with the massive floods that devastated large parts of the South Asian nation in 2010 and again, on a smaller scale, in 2011.

“The institutional response has been weak due to a lack of resources and capacities; the response among the public has been variable depending upon perception of the threat; and international response has been slow… due to growing demand for post-disaster help around the world,” said Hamid Safraz, IUCN Pakistan’s programme coordinator. “These have been further exacerbated by lack of understanding of the challenge and willingness to act at policymaking levels.”

Forecasts of the torrential 2010 rains that caused flooding that affected millions from the north of the country to the south were issued days beforehand by the country’s meteorological department. But, in many cases, the warnings were not taken seriously enough at local level, and little was done to protect people, homes, crops and animals.


Sarfraz believes Pakistan's approach to reducing the risk of such disasters has been reactive, resulting in excessive loss of human lives and property. Institutional and policy attitudes towards disaster management must be sharpened, he argues.

A recent report from the European humanitarian monitoring group DARA notes widespread awareness that Pakistan needs to be better prepared for disasters and do more to stop them happening, but action has yet to match words, largely due to under-investment.

“Donors recognise the relevance of prevention, risk reduction and preparedness but in reality do not seem to accord them much priority,” it said. “Disaster risk reduction (DRR) has been discussed by Pakistani authorities and the U.N. for several years but there is a gap between theory and practice.”

Agencies have been set up at national and provincial levels to manage disasters, but their staff lack expertise and need more training, according to Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, Asia director for the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and head of LEAD Pakistan an organization focused on the environment and sustainable development.

Also, “the performance of these institutions has been badly marred due to financial constraints,” he said.

Pakistan could lessen the impact of disasters by carrying out vulnerability assessments at district and sub-district levels, and training local people to handle pre- and post-emergency situations, he said.

Protecting Pakistan’s disaster-prone coastal cities - such as Thatta, Badin and Karachi in Sindh, and Gwadar and Ormara in Balochistan - requires more investment in programmes to build the resilience of vulnerable communities and manage development in coastal regions and in low-lying areas on the banks of the Indus River, IUCN Pakistan’s Sarfraz told AlertNet.

“We are establishing permanent settlements in the way of natural waterways and expect nature to adapt to our unnatural behavior,” he said. “Land zoning on the basis of well-established principles and strict enforcement of town planning regulations - rather than greed for commercial development along the coastline - will (be necessary) if we want to secure our coastal cities and towns.”


In October last year, more than 30 Pakistani cities signed up to the global “Making Cities Resilient” campaign, led by the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR).

Participating cities – including Karachi, Muzaffarabad, Dadu, Ghari Khairo, Tharparkar, Nowshera, Mnagora, Charsada, Oghi, Dera Ismail Khan, Loralai, Khuzdahr, and Ghizar in Pakistan - have agreed to commit to the campaign’s “Ten Essentials”, such as assigning a budget for disaster risk reduction and protecting ecosystems and natural buffers to mitigate floods, storm surges and other hazards. 

Zafar Iqbal Qadir, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, said the launch of the campaign in Pakistan would give “forward motion” to efforts to improve its disaster management system, and should help keep cities safe and habitable in the face of increasingly frequent climate-related disasters.

The disaster authority is now drawing up national plans for climate change adaptation and disaster risk management for 2013-17, based on consultations with non-governmental organisations, farmers and fisherman. It is also conducting studies of climate risks in each district, and promoting education about disasters in schools and universities, according to Qadir.

Javed Malik, secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Disaster Management, said the government would continue to advance disaster authority initiatives to improve resilience, according to the guidelines of the UNISDR campaign.

“We will also increase investment to improve the preparedness of vulnerable communities, to minimise losses in case of any disaster,” he said. “To achieve this, fundraising efforts are being taken for disaster management and extending the services of disaster risk insurance to vulnerable communities.”

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.

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