INTERVIEW: ‘Much Still Needs to be Done’ –Dr Saeed Elahi, Chairman PRCS

INTERVIEWDisaster response has improved a little, but that’s about all

Dr Saeed Elahi, presently Chairman of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS), is widely cited as the right man for the right job because he brings the right credentials to the office. His social and humanitarian work profile dates back to his early days as a medical doctor – MBBS from Allama Iqbal Medical College. The touch with the people pushed him to experiment with politics, and quickly he found himself elected member of the Punjab provincial assembly, where he served as Chairman, Task Force for Control of Spurious Drugs in Punjab, Chairman Blood Transfusion Authority, Parliamentary Secretary Health, and Punjab Minister for Health, among other high profile positions.

He scored valuable points in his constituency by establishing a string of dispensaries and helping upgrade the beaten down educational system. The public liked him even more when he took active part in the anti-dengue campaign and implemented the CM’s initiative of providing free medicines, treatment and central air conditioning in government hospitals.

His humanitarian achievements have earned him the chairmanship of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society. He talked exclusively to DNA about some of disaster-management related problems faced by Pakistan.

Question: How would you rate the recovery effort after the recent devastating earthquake?

Saeed Elahi: It was quite adequate and satisfactory as the national and provincial disaster management authorities responded very well despite having limited time and resources following the calamity that hit the northern parts of the country. However, undoubtedly, it was the Pakistan army that played the lead role as usual, because it has the necessary resources and equipment and the required training to deal with such the critical situation. Being a professional institution with a commitment to serve the people of Pakistan, the armed forces launched an effective and in-time response in the relief and rescue mission, which helped save hundreds of precious lives besides saving many from permanent or short term disability.

Despite the fact that the PRC has limited resources and manpower, our workers and volunteers were the first to reach the far-flung quake-ravaged areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Gilgit-Baltistan, including Chitral, Shangla, Dir and Torghar on the very day the earthquake struck. Our volunteers played an active part in rescue and relief operations

Q: What role did the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRC) play in this particular tragedy and how deep rooted is your presence in Pakistan?

SE: Despite the fact that the PRC has limited resources and manpower, our workers and volunteers were the first to reach the far-flung quake-ravaged areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Gilgit-Baltistan, including Chitral, Shangla, Dir and Torghar on the very day the earthquake struck. Our volunteers played an active part in rescue and relief operations. The PRC teams were actively engaged in relief activities in 11 quake-devastated districts and completed their operations within 11 days, where they distributed food and non-food items for 500 families at the district level, besides setting up mobile medical camps in the most affected regions. The PRC worked in coordination with the government but our staff works independently.

Whenever calamity strikes it is always a gigantic task to mobilise resources and equipment to help people. But the presence of PRC hardware across the area helped the operations. For instance, when the earthquake hit Chitral, all road infrastructure was badly affected and almost all roads were blocked. It was however only the PRC which led the rescue and relief operations as we had all the necessary goods at our warehouse in Chitral where we had sufficient food and medicines for at least 3,500 people.

Q: The local press came down very hard on the federal and provincial disaster management authorities for allegedly slow reaction towards the disaster hit areas. Do you think they could have been better prepared?

SE: Though it was high magnitude earthquake, luckily the damage was not of a proportionate scale due to the depth of the epicentre. So the calamity was tackled effectively with collective and coordinated efforts by all institutions of federal and provincial governments.

It is unfortunate that though Pakistan is ranked among the top three disaster-prone countries in the world, most of our people are not aware of this fact.

Most of our major cities sit on fault lines and there is a dire need for making long-term plans and carrying out research-based strategy besides working on capacity building of the disaster management authorities. There is a need to scrap parallel institutions rather than forming new organisations.

Pakistan had no disaster policy before the October 2005 earthquake. Though we lost around 80,000 precious lives in the deadly quake this disaster not only galvanised the Pakistani nation but it also helped the country frame its disaster response policy

It is also important for our media institutions to arrange capacity building of our journalists so as they could produce improved reports in emergency situations. It is true that media criticism always greatly helps the institutions to perform well in such situations. However, such situations demand specialised journalistic response so the media can guide the state and private agencies to generate timely and adequate response in calamity situations.

Q: Pakistan is becoming home to one of the most internally displaced persons (IDPs) regionally. How do you see the IDP problem rolling out?

SE: Undoubtedly, the IDP situation is a huge challenge. Pakistan was already busy in hosting millions of Afghan refugees when terrorism led the country face an IDP situation. Now, whether you call them IDPs or TDPs, it is very difficult for Pakistan with its limited resources to provide full relief to the displaced people due to the war on terrorism. It is yet more difficult for the government to provide necessary food, shelter and then reconstruct the affected areas and rehabilitate them to their native areas, which needs huge cost.

What Pakistan needs to do it to take up the matter with the international community, asking the top global powers to come forward and help Pakistan deal with the IDP situation as we are fighting their war. The North Waziristan Operation was launched in line with the demands and requests from the world community as terrorists were not only thwarting peace in Pakistan but they were exporting terrorism from Pakistani areas. We have dealt with this menace and now almost 99 percent areas have been cleared. It is hence the responsibility of the world to now come forward and help us meet the damages.

I believe in this sacred cause, our celebrities, including the likes of Imran Khan, who has international repute and recognition, should come forward and help the national cause by convincing the world to help with the rehabilitation process of IDPs.

Q: Pakistan also suffers from annual flash floods. Do you feel the preparedness is improving with time?

SE: Pakistan had no disaster policy before the October 2005 earthquake. Though we lost around 80,000 precious lives in the deadly quake this disaster not only galvanised the Pakistani nation but it also helped the country frame its disaster response policy. Since then, a lot of improvement has been seen in various national and provincial disaster management authorities.

We also face flash floods for the first time in the year 2010, when hundreds of precious lives were lost. Since then, the losses in flash floods have reduced drastically – thanks to better preparedness of the state and private institutions

We also face flash floods for the first time in the year 2010, when hundreds of precious lives were lost. Since then, the losses in flash floods have reduced drastically – thanks to better preparedness of the state and private institutions. In the recent floods, the losses were minimised due to emergency alert systems and improved preparedness. The situation has also improved a lot as far as hill torrents are concerned. Huge losses were registered in Nowshera, Peshawar, Dera Ghazi Khan, Dera Ismail Khan and other valleys along the hills in 2010. But things have changed now and better systems and methods have been adopted to deal with such situations. This year, no major loss was registered in any of the hilly areas due to hill torrents or flash floods. However, there is always a room for improvement and much needs to be done.

By: Mian Abrar

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