Fulfilling the Vital Need for National Disaster Awareness

Today is the 13th anniversary of a major tragedy. On October 8, 2005, a massive earthquake struck Pakistan’s northern areas and led to tens of thousands of deaths. The survivors were left with lives turned upside-down in a region that was completely devastated. It was one of the biggest disasters in Pakistan’s history. Even after more than a decade, its after-effects still reverberate.
In 2015, during the tenth anniversary of the catastrophe known as the Kashmir earthquake, the government of Pakistan formally declared October 8 a day set aside for commemoration and advocacy, a day given the name National Disaster Awareness Day. The country’s need for awareness of disaster risk was chosen to be the theme of the earthquake’s anniversary and that is fitting. It is because after the earthquake happened, providing rescue and relief to the victims was an enormous challenge, allowing high death rate and so much suffering to occur. But much of this would have been averted if Pakistan was prepared for this kind of earthquake. It would have been easy to take measures keeping people safe, such as building seismic-resistant buildings and people knowing what to do in an earthquake.
One problem is that knowledge was a precious rare resource in the area that was struck by the quake. Few people there had access to adequate education. Another problem was that nobody had any idea such an earthquake would occur. Earthquakes occur because of the activity of fault lines in the Earth’s crust. It is a hidden world too vast to easily encompass in our understanding. The 2005 Kashmir earthquake jolted Pakistan into awareness of the need to protect the people against disasters of all kinds and made disaster management a top national priority. Of all the lessons that the earthquake in Kashmir offered the nation as a compensation for the harm it wreaked, the greatest was the need for Pakistan to know just what are the dangers that the people of the nation face and to find out all that there is to find out about any crisis and any calamity that could occur.
Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management thus observes National Disaster Awareness Day by publishing this article that calls our attention to our need for awareness of all disaster risks and how to gain that awareness. It is the vital first step in ensuring the safety of the people of Pakistan from the crises that threaten them.
_________________________________

It is vital to assess what disaster risk exists, what could possibly happen, and how to mitigate it and safeguard those who are at risk. As such, the gaining of knowledge is the first step in disaster risk reduction. It is often also in itself a major challenge to achieve.

The first thing to know about disaster management, about what should be done, is that it is urgent. A disaster can happen any moment now- in fact, as I sit here writing this, I never know what I will hear if I turn on the news. So, if there is a need for a push in DRR in Pakistan, we better get off our seats and start right now. There is a great deal that we have to learn and in our quest for a safer Pakistan, we need to devote much of our effort gaining knowledge.

From here on, we will essentially be learning about learning. We are going to find out what is lacking in the knowledge required to implement disaster risk reduction policies in Pakistan and how to gain knowledge. For the purpose of this article, only disaster risk awareness is going to be dealt with, knowing all about the dangers that exist. We will not deal directly with knowing what can be done about the dangers. Knowing the dangers is needed before knowing what can be done, which in turn is needed for taking action.

Before we proceed, we need to know one thing. Awareness of disaster risk means assessing the possibilities of what could happen. Risk is by definition simply the probability of something bad happening. We can not be certain about what will happen, but we can measure the chances. Disaster risk awareness ought to be within our means. So here we go.

The one big reason Pakistan is so deficit in disaster risk awareness is that it lags far behind in education and research. There are many reasons why this is so. The main reason is the overall level of Pakistan’s development. Our country is not among the developed world.

Nevertheless, Pakistan is semi-industrialized and has the 24th largest economy in the world. Its economy is growing rapidly and the country is classified as an emerging nation. Hopefully, we will take advantage of the opportunities lying ahead and use them for the pursuit of gaining knowledge and making ourselves safer. Meantime, Pakistan is still very affluent and powerful for a nation with such low levels of knowledge of important matters. There must be other factors keeping our performance down, such as corruption and ineptness in the country’s public institutions, political problems, and traditional mindsets in Pakistani society accepting disasters as acts of God. Whatever the reasons, disaster risk thus is not studied very well in Pakistan by enough people who can then lead the way in DRR for the nation.

First, there is the state of knowledge in general within the nation. The citizens and relevant authorities of the country are lacking in the adequate expertise and opportunities to learn, making them ignorant of the knowledge that other people have access to. Second, the amount of information available on disaster risk in Pakistan is inadequate. Much knowledge in that regard does not exist at all.

I can tell from my own personal experience how hard it is to research disaster risk in Pakistan. Books are not as abundant and easily available in Pakistan as in the United States of America and my ability to do research on disaster risk topics through this venue has been limited. The content of Pakistani libraries and bookstores is mostly politics, economics, and social affairs and there is little on science, which comprises most of hazard risk awareness. There is an abundance of books mostly in official institutions, which limits their availability to ordinary Pakistanis. Books have little relevance, though, in the digital age because we can get all the knowledge we ever need from the internet. The Internet makes unlimited knowledge available for everybody with electricity and Wi Fi access. Here, too, specialized knowledge is often bought and sold.

The Internet suits all my needs. But when I look up information pertaining to Pakistan’s disaster risk, I then come across the stumbling blocks. Such information I find elusive, limited, bewildering, and contradictory and likely some information is incorrect or outdated. The official websites of disaster management authorities in Pakistan do not exactly brim with detailed information. Wikipedia content on disaster risk in Pakistan is limited. Wikipedia articles about Pakistan are often not updated properly. Whether inside Pakistan or outside, the literature on our nation’s disaster risk is sorely lacking.

So we need to engage in a voyage of discovery regarding Pakistan’s disaster risk. There is so much that we have to find out, so much that we have to figure out. When we do this, we will then be able to go far. Indeed, humanity as a species occupies supreme position in the world primarily because of our very high brainpower – how much we are able to know. In addition to its importance, knowledge is unique as a resource because it is limitless in the ease with which it can spread. One need not build bridges and spread road networks to spread knowledge. Knowledge  should be very easy to gain for seekers and its spread, as it is, is easy.

Thus, for example, if you want to make a million families safe from earthquakes, you build for them one million earthquake-resistant buildings. But if you want to know how to build such buildings, your experimentation requires building only a few buildings and testing them. Then, you can share the information you gained with other people much more easily than if you created tangible things and handed them out. Nevertheless, endeavors in research and discovery have often required great amounts of money and resources. We should look at the relationship between knowledge and the resources needed for it and we should try to find ways for those with limited means to have access to learning.

There are two kinds of knowledge, information and comprehension. Looking at it from an individual level, information is the knowledge you directly gather from examining the outside world. It is what your senses tell you. Gaining information is known as observation. Comprehension is what you do inside your head. It comes when you put the information you have together, when you think it over and come to conclusions, which is known as analysis. Both are equally important when it comes to awareness of the disaster risk around us.

The field of research has its rules and methods. To make conclusions or ascertain possibilities, the scientific method is the guideline commonly followed. The first step in it is observation. Based upon what you find, the next step is to make an induction. This is when you make a hypothesis, a guess about something, based upon what your observations suggest. Once you have the hypothesis, which can be strengthened by further inductions, you have to test it by looking for something that disproves it, which is known as deduction. If a deduction occurs, the hypothesis may be discarded or it may be modified. A hypothesis that is well-supported becomes a theory, which is an inference we can rely upon. In selecting between different hypotheses, the principle of parsimony is necessary. It states that the simplest and most direct explanation is the best one. We may not know with certainty that the hypothesis parsimony favors is true, but it still is the most likely because the circumstances that make it possible are the simplest. The standard criterion for judging the validity of a theory or a hypothesis is its predictive power.

Disaster risk research, of course, is the kind of science in which the stakes are very high. It is science for safety of the masses and so very careful standards will have to be applied to it. Keep in mind the six Italian seismologists who were arrested and given six-year prison sentences because they failed to predict an earthquake that hit the town of L’Aquila in 2009, killing 308 people. Since the Catholic inquisitions passed away, scientists normally do not have to live under fear of being punished for the work they do. But some scientific inquiry is less innocent and blissful than others. When people’s lives are at stake, you will have to do your utmost to get it right.

In our field, researching disaster risk essentially boils down to determining the probability of something happening. Disasters are events that could happen. We need to be aware which disasters could happen, how they could happen, and what effects they could have. Disaster risk awareness thus is a field that consists entirely of predicting future events.

That is the crux of the matter. In the parlance of scientific inquiry, predictive power refers to predicting what one will find in the future by observation. Predictive power takes on a special new significance in disaster risk awareness. We do not have to worry at all about being able to observe a disaster that happens, for a disaster, by definition, impacts people and thus people will clearly know about it very well. What we have to worry about is if we are able to foresee it coming, and the criterion to do that is pretty much the same as striving to hypothesize about an unknown. We have to clearly distinguish the two concepts of inferring how things are in the present and predicting what will happen in the future.

We can say there are two basic ways of predicting bad things happening in the future. One is to observe and analyze how circumstances are at present, and infer if they could lead to something bad happening, and the other is to look back to see if bad things already happened in the past. We can call the former approach science and the latter history. It can be said that our historical approach to disaster risk awareness is observation, looking at the disasters that already occurred, while our scientific approach is analysis, looking at present conditions and putting two and two together to asses what disasters they may lead to.

History is pretty much the easy way. Having it happen already is how people are commonly aware of what danger they face. Lessons from the past become facts of life in the world. It is how societies mostly find out about their disaster risk, especially since most disasters have been going on far back in time and form a pattern.

But it is a terrible idea to rely on that only or primarily. Firstly, there are always going to occur n the future new kinds of disasters or disasters with novel characteristics. Second, disasters are terrible and we do not want them to happen at all. One disaster is one too many and while its occurrence may provide us with valuable lessons, one would rather not have to learn it that way at all. One should instead be pre-cognizant of the possibility of any kind of disaster, before the first of its kind happens. Therefore, we cannot resign ourselves solely to using past disasters as a guide for preparing for all future possibilities, because that means sitting around and waiting for disasters to happen so we can learn from them.

Learning from them, from what has already passed, whether disaster or hazard event, is still absolutely vital, or course. If there are past events that serve as examples of disaster risk, we need to direct our attention to their study first because that is the easiest and most reliable way of studying disaster risk. The record of disasters or hazardous events that already happened typically serve as a comprehensive template for further risk.

A disaster event ought to be carefully studied and analyzed, so that not only people look back and think of what could have been done better but of what can be done better later. You can study the hazard itself. You can study the effect it had. You can study how people responded to it. You can study how unrelated circumstances interacted with the crisis and shaped it. You realize that such things could happen again, and you become more cognizant of the risks to be faced in the future. We should not assume that a certain disaster will be repeated in an exact way again. The world rarely works that way. Instead, we assume features of one disaster may be shared by future disasters. It is in fact best to look at at all the disasters that have occurred and put them together to create a comprehensive assessment of risk.

So any disaster event has to be scrutinized thoroughly. When a disaster has occurred in the present, once we are done devoting all effort to responding to it, we need to study it, as fresh events are the easiest to learn about. We need to completely catalog the activity that was conducted in response to the disaster. We need to interview the survivors to learn how they were affected and what they saw. We need to do field surveys and investigations of the disaster zone to learn as much as we can about the event. Before that, because it is an event unfolding before our eyes, while responding to a disaster, people should keep their eyes open and make sure to take note of all that is going on.

If a disaster event happened in the past, studying it becomes more difficult, the more so the farther back in time it happened. We need to rush to study all such events as soon as possible. Living witnesses, if there are any, have to be interviewed and traces of the past disasters must be thoroughly examined. Records of the disasters must be analyzed and put together in an integrated assessment.

Determining the disaster risk in a certain nation is best done by studying the disaster events that have occurred within the current boundaries of the nation, but it is also important to encompass the entire world in one’s historical research. Studying every disaster event that has ever occurred everywhere provides us with a highly rich plethora of knowledge and disasters in other parts of the world are relevant to your nation because events work similarly, abiding by the same principles, wherever they occur.

As mentioned, while in most cases of risk, we already have a history of either tragedy or close calls to draw upon, so we know what to expect and what to do, it does not hold true for all disasters that are possible. And really, the fact that hardly any event that will occur in the future in a certain setting will be an exact repeat of an event that has occurred before makes the past limited in what it is able to teach us. We cannot just wait for bad things to occur so that we can then become cognizant of the danger and so be better prepared next time. We need to keep our antennas out for all possibilities so we can be prepared in the first place.

We need to maintain this approach to risk particularly because the world is not static. It is changing all the time and right now, it is changing a lot. Just take one look around. Change is the tempo of the world now, change that is accelerating as it happens. The primary change is the growth of the world’s population. Around five hundred million people were around five hundred years ago. By 1800, it was one billion. By 1900, it was two billion. Now, a billion people are added to the world’s stock every decade. This means that the number of potential victims of disaster, the exposure, is skyrocketing. Alongside this comes great change in the world around these people, including change in the hazards that threaten them and their vulnerability and capacity to cope.

As a result, an experience-based approach to disaster risk is becoming more and more irrelevant. It is vitally important in the modern world to be forewarned of new risks, of new kinds of disasters that could occur, of new situations. That really should not be impossible, because after all, pushing back the limits on the barriers to human knowledge is part of the modern world.

Yet, it seems that people often feel content to resign themselves to experience. There are several examples from politics to take note of. One concerning the hazard of terrorism will be recounted here. US President Donald Trump received a lot of flak for his implementation at the beginning of his administration of the travel ban on seven Muslim countries and the ban on Syrian refugees entering the country. One of the criticisms of his policy made by journalists was that no terror plot in the US was ever conducted by anybody from Syria.

Of course that is so. Nobody from Syria ever attacked the United States. The implication then is that we should not bother ourselves with the danger of that happening unless such an incident actually does.

Let us not fall for the argument from fallacy (metafallacy) here. Donald Trump’s estimation of the terror threat from Syrian refugees may well be overblown, but I do recognize that those who fiercely oppose him cannot use everything they have in tearing him down without checking to see if it has negative consequences. As a disaster management practitioner, I wish to warn everybody of how wrong it is to conduct the political fight against the Don at the expense of public safety.

Back in late summer, 2017, Trump tweeted about Irma and the other big hurricanes when they were incoming in the US, using colorful hyperbole to describe their power. Some journalists complained the POTUS was exploiting the crises and “bragging about the size of his hurricane”. Actually, when a crisis is underway, it is a sensible thing to bring home to everybody how serious the crisis is. Donald’s Twitter account was just playing its part. There were people in danger. If they read the journalist’s article criticizing Trump’s approach , they could have been swayed into ignoring Trump’s warnings, and get into danger.

Hurricanes aside, those who criticize Trump’s anti-terror policies, on the basis of him preparing for threats that never happened before, are manifesting a dangerous mindset. There is a first time for everything and people have got to be ready for anything. There is plenty I disagree with Trump, including as a DRR person. I, however, do not disagree with the basic principle of preparedness for first-time possibilities. It is sensible.

The US has a whole agency that engages in this sort of thing, the CIA. Intelligence agencies can serve as a good role model for disaster risk awareness. They can even get involved. We should try it with ISI. Just as the Pakistani military responds to disasters so well, ISI should expand capacity to foresee them. Intelligence, putting information together, is required to foresee something. If you are only aware of the possibility of something happening because it has already happened, then that is just memory (so we have completed the two paradigms of human knowledge. They are observation/ information/memory and analysis/comprehension/intelligence).

Looking at an example of how memory won’t keep you entirely safe, America’s response to 9-11 was the second best thing. Thousands died and the country took steps to ensure “never again”. “Never in the first place” would have been the best thing. But of course, nobody flew planes into buildings before, so America just was not careful about preventing what became 9-11. This negligence was averted way back in 1910 when airplanes were just invented. Tsarist Russia became concerned that any of the insurgents plaguing the empire could fly the new vehicles into buildings. Now that is called thinking ahead.

The mourners of 9-11 say “never forget” but they must learn to say also “always foresee”. For example, airline security ordered all passengers to remove their shoes before going through the scanner after a failed attempt at a shoe bombing on a plane (a near-miss of a disaster), but it would have been better if they had thought up beforehand that shoes might be used as carriers for explosives. What intelligence analysts should have done was put themselves in the shoes of the dangerous people out there and try to guess what possibilities the latter could avail. Anti-terrorism agencies need to stay one step ahead of the terrorists, instead of trailing in the aftermath of carnage.

Similarly, we need to stay one step ahead of all disaster risks. It is all about the right techniques. We must seek the ways to find out about any danger that exists before it manifests itself. It is also about inquisitiveness. We may never know where to look for signs of a future calamity, so we must look everywhere. We must know as much about the world as possible to find dangers we never before knew were possible. If we do not have prior manifestations of danger to draw upon, finding the right techniques of analysis in order to create a prediction is what we have to rely upon.

That is our science in disaster risk awareness. It is almost always going to be a more difficult task than the historical approach. Analysis is a skill and takes effort to develop. That is the time to bring out everything we have in the science kit and set ourselves to work, (hopefully without fear of a manslaughter conviction).

Here, we return to the concept of scientists guessing the way something is before it is observed, because it has many lessons for the pursuit of predicting what will happen in the future. There have been many great achievements in this field, many predictions in science that are really impressive.

A classic example occurred in astronomy. The planet Neptune, which lies out in the far reaches of the Solar System, is now familiar to us, but there was a time when scientists knew about it before anybody saw it through a telescope. Actually, since Galileo in 1613 (he was observing Jupiter and Neptune appeared right by), stargazers saw it many times through telescopes, but they mistook it for a star (because of its slow orbit speed, which was necessary for it to not be flung out of the Solar System) and it went unrecognized as a planet within the Solar System. Looking for Neptune in the night sky was like looking for a needle in a haystack, except that the needle was just mistaken for a straw every time someone saw it. Neptune, then, was lost in the expanse of both space and the catalogs of astronomers.

The only people who were able to find it were mathematicians. First, an observation was made by astronomers. The planet Uranus, which is closer to the Sun than Neptune, was discovered by William Herschel in 1781 and two years later, Pierre-Simon Laplace calculated the exact perimeters that the planet’s orbit had to have, basically predicting exactly how the planet was going to move. In the decades afterwards, astronomers tracked Uranus’s orbit (which takes 84 years to go around the Sun) and by the 1800s, they noticed that the trajectory the planet took was slightly different from what was predicted. Its orbit was not smooth but deviated a little in a way they could not account for.

Scientists suggested that Uranus’s eccentricities were caused by the gravity of unseen objects. Their conclusion was that it was a planet in the Solar System farther from the Sun than Uranus, which tugged on Uranus’s orbit. But the really impressive feat was when two mathematicians, a Frenchman named Urbain Le Verrier and an Englishman named John Couch Adams, worked independently of each other in the 1840s to calculate both the position and the mass of the planet. Their estimates were close to each other and soon afterwards, in 1846, a German scientist named Johann Gottfried Galle decided to look in the sky for the planet, using the calculations as a guide. He found it and it was named Neptune. The calculations were a success.

The mathematicians devised their prediction of Neptune’s existence using math and Newtonian mechanics. Isaac Newton was a spectacular genius. He observed the heavens and the state of the objects visible and devised mathematical tools that would allow scientists to predict how space objects would behave in other circumstances. Mathematics is the field of pure analysis, of comprehension. One just needs to master it in one’s head and one can gain a firm understanding of all that one can observe or imagine. The Englishman and Frenchman used what Newton pioneered to guess how things were in an unseen part of the Solar System. They very well could have also used it to predict future events, like if Neptune was going to collide with Uranus in three hundred years, then they could have known it would occur. If they, utilizing science and math, could do it for the goings on far out there, people can also do it for what goes on down on Earth.

However, the clutter of all the little things that are on this world called Earth are vastly more complex in their behavior than are all the worlds themselves in the open expanse of space. The world we live in is a labyrinth of events and processes. Our only advantage is that everything here is closer to us than what is out there and in that way, easier to observe. We are mostly okay in the observation department, but analysis is a significant feat too.

There are so many cases of individuals whose knowledge was far ahead of what the circumstances and technology of their times could allow them to observe. Turning back towards space, perhaps the greatest of the minds that were capable of gleaming what there was long before anybody could see it was Albert Einstein. His name is synonymous with genius and that is not because he did experiments or went out into the field and discovered things. He engaged his brain and not his eyes or his ears, for he took the observations made by other people, observations that were greatly puzzling, and garnered his great theories from them, making sense meanwhile, long before the theories could be tested.

Thus, the theory of relativity was confirmed near the end of the twentieth century by the misalignment of GPS signals passing between satellites and Earth’s surface, but Einstein predicted this would happen close to the beginning of the century. Before people could go to space, Einstein embarked on epic voyages of discovery on his blackboard. He looked at observations, such as the discovery that the speed of light from outer space was the same from Earth’s perspective whichever direction it was coming from. He then managed to explain what it all meant and figured out how the universe worked. Einstein could serve as a great inspiration to those who aim to simulate in their minds how disasters may happen before such events become real.

Einstein, of course, was not an ordinary human being. After his death, a brain autopsy on him found that the regions of his brain responsible for reasoning were unusually large. We can seek out other people like that in the world today, and set them to work in disaster research. If any such person is out there, reading this blog, I implore you to put your scientific talents to work in the pursuit of humanitarian interests and public safety.

We have seen such great achievements in the endeavor to understand the basic workings of the world. It is time that we put these talents directly to use in the pursuit of keeping people of the world safe. People like Einstein have proven we can spare ourselves the agony of resorting to using a past disaster as a template for preventing further disasters because the human mind can do better than that.

So let us look at what can be done concerning awareness of the different types of disaster risks in the world. We will start with the hazards that are the source of risk. Most of the world’s hazard risk comes from nature. Natural disasters are our main problem and like natural events typically, they are repetitive. Most natural hazard events happen quite frequently in fact, and human societies are usually quite used to them.

However, there are many hazardous natural phenomenon that occur with very long intervals, such as large earthquakes or tsunamis, often making them difficult to remember. We can find out about such past occurrences through historical, archaeological, or paleontological investigations. The need for doing the same also exists for natural hazards in areas where reliable written records do not go back very far, most likely because human habitation or reliable record-keeping began there relatively recently. To create for ourselves a record of past natural events, we just have to look for their tell-tale traces in the ground.

Our awareness of natural hazards is no longer as secure as it used to be. Nature changes and it usually does so very slowly when left to itself. However, human impact is now altering the natural world on a large-scale at a breakneck speed. The natural hazards we face in the future (and not too far a future at that) are going to be different from what we faced in the past. Even if we resign ourselves to just waiting for these new natural disasters to happen in order to find out that they can happen, it will not work as a source of lessons for very long, because natural hazards will continue to change. What we need is to prepare for the global environmental upheaval we are heading towards, and for that, we need to find out what the future holds in store, before that future becomes reality.

Planet Earth is very big and very complex. Small changes can have big consequences that are erratic and unpredictable. The natural world is also mysterious on account of the fact that it exists by itself without human input. Studying, uncovering its secrets is a big challenge. We have to comprehensively understand how things are in nature, and what are the scientific laws governing their behavior. As the entire planet is interconnected, we then have to put everything together to get a clear picture of what to expect, including in geographical terms, which is to say what changes will take place exactly where. Much of this will require calculations so complex that supercomputer technology will be needed.

There are also hazards that come directly from human beings and their actions. Artificial hazards are, for obvious reasons, almost never a constant. They are changing all the time. We are supposed to know all about our artificial world.

Hazard is just one component of disaster risk. There is also exposure, vulnerability, and capacity to cope. We need to have awareness of that also. Because these three factors pertain to human societies, they again also have a high tendency to change, which means that scientific analysis will be largely needed to understand them, although historical analysis will also help.

Pakistan is a challenging environment for DRR. 40 percent of Pakistan’s population is illiterate and 44 percent of children between the ages of five and sixteen are out of school, though The field of science and research continues to grow. In fact, Pakistan tops all other Islamic countries in its expertise, being thus the intellectual leader of the Muslim World. But Pakistan still lags far behind the developed world.

For example, only two Nobel prizes were won by somebody from Pakistan, one was the Nobel Physics Prize won by Abdus Salam for unifying the nuclear and the electromagnetic force (it is a pretty impressive achievement that gives the impression of following in the footsteps of the great Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell), and the other was the Nobel Peace Prize won by Malala Yousafzai. That prize was not for any intellectual achievement but rather for her struggle for entitlement to intellectual achievements. Both prizes were shared with other people.

For the purpose of instituting disaster risk awareness, it is really only higher education that is relevant. Higher education is the level of education, usually for students who have entered adulthood, that directly prepares them for professional life. There is typically a lot of emphasis on original research and innovation. When students successfully complete a course of study, an academic degree is awarded to them. If students produce a work that demonstrates complete mastery of a subject they have been studying, or which contributes to scholarly knowledge through the students’ original research, they are awarded the highest degree, a PhD.

Pakistan’s education system started to change in 2002, when the nation’s economy was blooming and Pervez Musharraf was dictator. Globally, the increasing importance of knowledge economies made higher education a priority for nations. That year, the University Grants Commission was abolished and replaced by the Higher Education Commission (HEC), which was independent of the Ministry of Education. Its first chairperson was Atta-ur-Rehman, a scientist who was Minister for Science and Technology in the preceding two years. Under his lead, the HEC initiated a series of reforms on higher education and accomplished a great deal.

Funding for Pakistan’s universities grew from 3 billion rupees in 2002, to more than 30 billion five years later. As a result of these efforts, many Pakistani universities increased in standing and became world-class institutions. From 2003 to 2008, university enrollment increased from 135,000 per year to 400,000 and international research publications produced by Pakistan increased from 600 per year to 4300.

After 2009, however, higher education stagnated again. The economy was hit by crises and Musharaff’s government gave way to a Pakistan’s People’s Party-led civilian government in the 2008 elections. Funding for higher education was drastically reduced. Nevertheless, university enrollment and academic research continues to grow in Pakistan. We also have the students who were educated during the golden period of 2002-2009 with us (unless they go abroad and abandon our nation).

Nevertheless, Pakistan does not look set to become a knowledge economy yet,which would be necessary for the prosperity of the nation. For PPLDM, the concern is safety. As long as there is enough knowledge to keep Pakistanis safe, our goal here is fulfilled.

Indeed, however strong Pakistan’s academic performance is, whatever the scale of our achievements and research, when it comes to disaster risk awareness, it remains to be seen just how much the nation puts its talent to use in that end. Priorities matter. In the entire realm of science and technology, the field Pakistan is strongest in is chemistry. The next strongest field is nuclear physics. That does not do much good for DRR. Sure, nuclear physics will help Pakistanis understand a risk that came about as a result of them knowing nuclear physics, which is nuclear power plant meltdown, and everything is made of chemicals, so knowing about chemicals helps us to know quite a lot about every hazard. Also, we have chemistry-based hazards like fire. But otherwise, Pakistan needs to improve itself in a lot of other fields to gain competence in basic risk awareness.

So we got to look at what are the basic fields of knowledge most relevant to disaster risk. When it comes to hazards, almost the entire danger we live under comes from nature. Therefore, knowledge about nature and how it works forms the crux of disaster risk awareness. That is relatively weak in Pakistan. Planet Earth is highly complex but is divided into four basic sectors, the geosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the biosphere, all of which have four fields of science devoted to their study.

It goes without saying that meteorology, the science of the atmosphere, is the most important for disaster management. Weather-related disasters are the most common, and most human suffering and losses come from the weather. It holds true for Pakistan. The weather plays a big role also in natural disasters in general. Here and all over the world, meteorology is a core field of natural hazard management.
Under the Pakistan Meteorological Department, which was founded in 1947, meteorology became one of Pakistan’s top scientific fields early on in the nation’s history. As far as weather forecasting is concerned, it remains a strong field, with many institutions dedicated to the weather including some that are linked to agriculture.

Geology, the science of the geosphere, which is the earth itself, is also very important. Geological disasters may not come often but when they do, they tend to be severe.Pakistan is one of the world’s most geologically hazardous countries, especially in the mountainous areas. Geology is a strong field in Pakistan, which has its own “Geological Survey Pakistan (GSP). The Geological Survey of Pakistan was boosted significantly by help from the USGS during Pakistan’s early decades and continues to be a reputable scientific institution. It has done impressive work charting Pakistan’s geosphere. Another major geological institution in Pakistan is the Department of Geology at the University of Karachi.

Hydrology, the science of the hydrosphere which is just the presence of water in the natural world, is very much interchangeable with geology and meteorology, but it is considered a separate field of its own because water is such a common and important substance in nature. That single substance plays a huge role in the workings of the Earth and that is reflected in the fact that 90 percent of all natural disasters are water-related. Having an integrated understanding of water is therefore very important to disaster risk awareness. Hydrology is a fairly strong field in Pakistan. That is particularly because Pakistan has a very extensive water management system. Hydrology is not treated very much as a separate field though. Pakistanis working in other fields of science, especially geology, are well-versed in hydrology as well.

Biology, the study of living things which make up the biosphere, is the one field in the list which appears to be of not overarching importance to disaster risk awareness. Living things are just not as powerful a force in the world as air, earth, and water and the biosphere as such does not give a threatening appearance, especially in the modern world. As such, compared to the huge variety of meteorological, geological, and hydrological hazards, biological hazards are few in number.

These are,nevertheless, significant. One of them is epidemics (they involve microbes), which are a major threat all over the world. Another major threat is famine caused by agricultural failure (they involve plants dying), of which many instances themselves have a biological cause such as pest infestation. Most of the biggest disasters in human history have been epidemics and famines. Finally, the third type of biology-related hazard that we mostly have to deal with is wildfires (plants burning). Wildfires tend not to be severe disasters individually. However, they, and fires in general, mostly occur very frequently, so much so that fires are considered the main crisis that emergency services have to be ready for. These three hazards make the biological sciences indispensable to keeping us safe.

Biology is not a highly significant field in Pakistan. Much of the importance it does have might be due to being in conjunction with chemistry, especially because the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences is responsible for much of Pakistan’s chemist prowess, running the largest postgraduate research program in the country with 600 students enrolled for PhD. These students better focus on biology as well. A major indigenous organization promoting biology in the country is the Biological Society of Pakistan, founded in 1949.

The environmental sciences combine the aforementioned fields of natural science by studying the interactions between the spheres of Earth. They are crucial for risk awareness, because hazards tend to be the result of complex factors and the way they interact with the environment plays a part in what effect they have on people. Environmental science is a very integrated field. It exists not in isolation and it is very good for a comprehensive understanding of how nature, and therefore how natural hazards, work.

Environmental sciences are budding in Pakistan, much like everywhere. If Pakistanis are having trouble with it, I suggest that all they have to do is combine together different fields they are already good at. I say we ought to get meteorologists, geologists, and biologists get together in the same room to study the environment with each other.

Besides general sciences, the twin fields of technology and engineering are also of main importance for knowing about artificial hazards. The more technology and engineering Pakistan does, the greater the risk that come from them. In a country like Pakistan, a lot of technological and engineering products may come from abroad, meaning the knowledge about these things remains in the hands of others who made them. We Pakistanis may harbor only the knowledge of how to use the stuff. That deprives us of being aware of the risks if anything going wrong, which can be remedied by becoming experts in tech and engineering ourselves. Those fields of knowledge are also good for being aware of vulnerability from natural hazards. We need to be aware of how products of civilization are capable of causing disasters.

Check out the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore (UET Lahore). It was established way back in 1921. The Pakistan Institute of Engineering and Applied Sciences (PIEAS), based in Islamabad, is rated by the HEC as the leading university in Pakistan regarding technology and engineering.

There are two basic fields of science, physics and chemistry. As mentioned, Pakistanis are good at the latter, but it is really the former that is essential to disaster risk awareness. Chemistry is the study of what things are made of, and physics is the study of how everything works. Disasters are dynamic events. They involve something happening and so physics is always needed to explain them. When people have a mastery of physics, they will be expert at taking apart the anatomy of a disaster and understanding how it works, and they will be very good at prediction. Physics is really key to disaster science.It is a strong field in Pakistan. UET Lahore operates the Pakistan Institute of Physics, which promotes the research of physics in Pakistan and grants licenses to physicists in the country. There is also the National Centre for Physics.

There are hazards, the source of disasters, and then there are the disasters themselves, which is the effect the hazard has on us. Disasters are defined as that which causes harm to people, to a person’s self, and so there is a field of knowledge which deals with the ultimate result of all disaster, medicine. It is the study of ailments that afflict the human body and how to deal with them. Along with it goes human physiology, the general study of the human body, which helps us to predict what could happen to people in disasters.

Medicine is a major field in this country in terms of how many people study it. When I go around, most students I come across are studying medical textbooks. That is good, because healthcare is very important and Pakistan needs a lot of it. There are countless institutions in Pakistan devoted to the study of medicine. The country is lagging behind in proper utilization of talent in medicine, which is an administrative issue.

However things are in Pakistan right now, I am quite certain that the people of the country have a great deal of potential intellectually. They just do not have the opportunities right now. How to foster their potential is a big question. Higher education tends to be arranged in such a rigid manner. There should be flexibility in how the people of Pakistan can learn. There are so many ways we can do so, so many ways to innovate learning.

Awareness of disaster risk in Pakistan, however, does not necessarily need to come from within Pakistan. The world is deeply interconnected and societies derive much of their knowledge from each other.Consider, as an example, the two inhabited continents that have been on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of how much their indigenous people developed in the realm of civilization, Europe and Australia. Both are the world’s two smallest continents, so much so that it is ambiguous if Europe is a peninsula and Australia is an island. But their history is strikingly different. Europe has long been a seat of civilization and in recent centuries dominated the entire globe. Australia remained purely a land of hunter-gatherers until one European country used it as the dumping ground for convicts. Europe is geographically the world’s least isolated continent, merging with the world’s biggest continent on its eastern side and straddling the second-biggest continent along its southern side. Australia is the most isolated continent (save for Antarctica), way out there in the ocean with only a string of islands connecting it to distant Asia.

Our modern world is largely a product of the course of European history and it is a world based heavily on wide-ranging connectivity and the passing of ideas and knowledge across borders. We only hope that its purpose is no longer so one-sided, with the Westerners in control of everything and gathering up all the benefits. We Pakistanis obviously have learned much of what we know of the general facts of disaster risk from the rest of the world, especially the most developed countries. There is also great potential for foreigners to study Pakistan’s disaster risks.

The more that Pakistanis engage with the rest of the world, the more we can learn. That especially goes for the goal of creating knowledge, which is going to be required a lot in researching Pakistan’s disasters. The world’s highest repositories of knowledge and expertise lie in a select few rich countries such as America and Japan and Pakistanis can gain that knowledge by interacting with these countries, especially by going there themselves. Of the impressive record of intellectual achievements by citizens of Pakistan, much of it consists of work done by those who went abroad, such as the breakthroughs in physics by Abdus Salam. There are over seven million Pakistani expatriates around the world. They have formed many communities, the biggest of which are in the United States, Britain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. These four countries have quite a lot of money (though the west is way ahead of the Arabs in the knowledge department).

Expatriots tend to prosper and have contributed a great deal to their host countries. Their contributions to their home country have also been significant. In the past, emigrants from Pakistan were largely common laborers, but in recent decades, scientists and academics have been going abroad and getting into foreign universities. Many of them have either worked to open up collaboration with institutions in Pakistan or have returned back here to bring their expertise with them. They have greatly enriched the intellectual scene in Pakistan.

Also, we do not need to leave Pakistan to get expertise abroad. That knowledge can come here. We now live in a world where this happens easily, thanks to the internet. In 2008, Pakistan Telecom Authority said the nation had 22 million internet users. The world’s knowledge is freely placed on the Internet. Thanks to the printing press, the “most important invention of the millennium” according to Time Magazine, Pakistan can overflow with books and magazines from abroad in abundance.

Knowledge is a boundless resource except when people want ownership over it. It is a problem when you have to pay for knowledge. Not everything on the Internet is free. Some content requires subscription fees to access, especially more technical and formal sources. As for publications in general, they tend to be protected by copyright. That means you cannot legally reproduce the knowledge without the consent of whoever first produced it.

This ensures that when somebody produces a piece of knowledge, he or she can profit from it. It creates incentives for people to research and gives them the resources to do more research. But it also kind of limits the range of knowledge. Each country has copyright laws which have to be duly enforced. Across borders, though, there is no international copyright that is obligatory. Many countries have signed copyright agreements, so publications of one country can be protected in another country.
I think Pakistan should honor foreign copyright so that we can give back to those who give to us. But you know the thing about safety? It comes first. I’d say that for those publications that are relevant to safety, those pieces of knowledge that we need for awareness of the risks we face, we should fight for exemption or ignore, if we must, foreign copyright.

Whatever copy from abroad we get our hands on, we should freely distribute it if it is important for saving lives. Human lives are what are most important. This limited and important range of intellectual freedom is humanitarian. It should not offend anyone.

All that is unknown about disaster risk in Pakistan must be uncovered. If foreign expertise is useful for that, then by all means, invite people from other countries to study the disaster risk in Pakistan and work together with Pakistanis in this regard. There are many reasons they would want to do so. People may have interests in Pakistan, such as commercial interests, and disaster management here will be useful for them. China comes as an example in mind as it is investing commercially in Pakistan a lot. There are humanitarian groups who wish to make things safer for the people of the world. There are scientists who will do it out of pure academic interest. Scientists from other countries can map seismic fault lines in Pakistan, survey the geology of the northern areas to find out the chance of landslides, or make computer models of how global warming will affect the monsoon’s behavior in Pakistan, all as part of their endeavor to know as much about the world as possible.

Researchers and scientists, however, usually focus on studying anything that is relevant to their own countries. Their next priority is studying anything involving other countries that their own country has ties of any kind to. Interaction of Pakistan with the outside world is put under jeopardy as a result of the circumstances that surround the War on Terror. Issues concerning militancy and extremism have created rifts between Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Fortunately, humanitarian organizations tend to be intrepid.

For now, we will take a look at the organization most relevant to us, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction, UNISDR. It is part of the UN Secretariat, which is the UN’s executive branch. The UNISDR’s four goals are stated as “understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk, investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience, and enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction”.

UNISDR has done much in pursuit of the first goal. The organization has a Scientific and Technical Advisory Group (STAG). UNISDR maintains a list of its partners on its website and one category is called Science and Technology Research Institutions, Organizations, and Networks. STAG coordinates the agency’s interaction with these groups. UNISDR has a website for imparting its knowledge to the public, called PreventionWeb.

Science has two motivations, practical benefit and curiosity. Disaster risk awareness is one of the most practical fields of knowledge. Safety is one of the most important things for people. Whose safety is a big question though. The resource to gain knowledge is often in the hands of only a select few. Who they are often determines whose interests they cater to. On the other hand, there are many of them who just want to find out as much about the world as possible.

The world puts great effort into satisfying curiosity, especially the affluent, perhaps because they can afford it. the biggest example is paleontology. Fossil diggers from America and other countries regularly go to Mongolia to discover dinosaur fossils such as that of Tarbosaurus, the Asian cousin of the T. Rex. Out in those dusty quarries, there runs one of the few rumbles of international activity in the backwater nation.

Paleontology is a field with so much attention given and so little practical value to offer in return. Biomimicry is emerging as a major field of innovation, whereby people create designs inspired by biological systems and structures, and the fossil record provides us with four billion years of nature to copy from. But until we turn our attention to that, the fascination of so many with dinosaurs and the like is a big example of how much we want to learn for learning’s sake.

That does not do all that much good since the motive does not involve serving your fellow man. Nevertheless, many hazardous events tend to pique human interest. It turns out that danger always fascinates and intrigues human beings. Just look at the Hollywood film industry. The popular films are always filled with danger. Maybe there is a connection with serving humanity. Staying safe from danger has always been one of humanity’s biggest priorities and as such, we find an emotional attraction in doing so.

Many hazardous events offer attractive spectacles. Just think of how fascinating a tornado or a tsunami is. Anything powerful and destructive will get people to want to look into it. However, there are many disasters and hazards that do not look very exciting or interesting. Two such “boring” hazards, epidemics and famines/droughts, have been among the most serious of hazards throughout history. We have figures of 100 million dead from the 1918 Spanish Flu and 30 million dead from the Great Chinese Famine of 1960. But Hollywood is not going to make big box-office cash from movies of people starving or falling ill as much as from its more conventional disaster films.

There is clearly a great gap between people focusing on what is important and on what is interesting. We will look at a couple of examples for Pakistan itself. A great earthquake struck Balochistan in September 2013 and hundreds died. At the same time, a new island rose out of the ocean off the coast of the region. This generated a great deal of publicity for the earthquake in the international media. The casualties did not. I guess people reading newspapers around the world think it mundane when they read figures of lots of people dying somewhere in the world. It is just not of interest to them. But a new island rising out of the ocean is. In a more recent example, the damage caused in the city of Lahore by monsoon rains in July 2018 caught the world’s attention because of the formation of a large sinkhole. In these cases, people are interested by something rare happening, and it is not every day that the ground sinks down or rises out of the ocean.

Interest in safety from danger can foster disaster research. People are so interested in the gigantic animals that roamed the planet 70 million years ago and the supernovas happening far away in the universe and islands rising out of the sea. We can get them to be equally interested in the earthquakes that happen and the cyclones that happen and all the calamitous events that could happen, the endangerment to people, and methodologies in overcoming them. I cannot think of anything more fascinating than that. It is a pursuit of knowledge that is motivational in every way.

Money is not the only motivation for science. Consider NASA, which throughout its history has been devoted to pouring large amounts of money into research projects that do not give money back. Less affluent countries like Pakistan will have to balance out money and learning.

One a final note, we need to motivate all of us to pursue knowledge under the goal of protecting people from all that threatens them. Look at what we are all doing, in Pakistan and everywhere else. We are constantly endeavoring to make ourselves smarter and find out as much as we can. But we must look at for what purpose. Safety should be our number-one purpose. We need to be most vigorous in our knowledge-seeking when it comes to safety. We need to focus in that area the most. I believe Pakistan should primarily focus on that. Once we have succeeded in gaining adequate disaster risk awareness, enabling us to be safe as a nation, we can turn our attention to everything else so that we may bloom as a nation.

I call upon all the bright and promising minds reading this article to do just that. Whatever you are studying, whatever field of knowledge you are working to pioneer, it would be best that you use your talent and gifts for the most worthy causes and that you focus your attention on what is most important to discover, the disaster risks in our country. Nearly two hundred million Pakistanis live under danger every moment of their lives. If Pakistan wants to be a nation of knowledge, it should begin by becoming aware of these dangers first and foremost, in order that we may protect and preserve all the precious minds that have the potential to participate in humanity’s noble goals.

Advertisements

Reflecting on the Bahawalpur Fire a Year on

June 25, 2018, which has recently passed by, is a somber day for Pakistan. It is the first anniversary of the Bahawalpur oil tanker tragedy. On this date, a year ago, a tanker truck carrying 40,000 litres of oil overturned on a highway in the district of Bahawalpur in southern Punjab, spilling its contents. A large crowd of people gathered around it to collect oil and then the puddles of oil ignited and set the crowd on fire, killing dozens instantly. Scores of people ended up badly burned and were shifted to and treated at hospitals across Pakistan with great difficulty, while the death toll rose rapidly in the days ahead. 219 were ultimately to die from the accident. Unusually for a disaster, the number of wounded was smaller, 140, mostly because of the deadliness of the blast.
It was a horrifying tragedy that shocked the nation and dulled Eid celebrations. It was a very distinct disaster. In many ways, it was unusual and it was horrific in its nature. I wrote a blog post detailing the event in Tragedy at Bahawalpur, the first post on this website. Now that the anniversary of the event has passed by, it is worth our while to revisit the lessons from that grim event. It is something that tells us a lot about disaster management.
First and foremost, the tanker fire was not a run-of-the-mill calamity. Such events do not happen often and people are at little risk of falling victim. The disaster was unusual because the hazard was small. We deal with many types of disasters which occur frequently. Whether fires spreading through buildings or floods inundating a densely populated area, we regard them as a part of how the world goes. Thus, people tend to be well aware of the risk from them. But people gathering around spilt oil from a crashed tanker and catching fire does not happen often. Plus, this is really something that one would not expect. Traffic accidents are very common anywhere in the world and any liquid carried in a huge tank on a vehicle would have a good chance of ending up gushing out onto the road. But people all around flocking to it and putting themselves in one of the most dangerous situations imaginable? That is weird.
The Bahawalpur fire was thus an unexpected disaster. This made the hazard difficult to watch out for. It shows us that bad things happening to a large number of people can come from just about anything. We have to keep a watch out for whatever could happen, not just events that we are used to.
Understandably, Pakistan wasn’t very prepared to deal with such a crisis. Not only were measures to prevent a crash not enforced, once it happened, the authorities were not well-equipped to deal with the gathering crowd. Perhaps this unfamiliarity also played a role in the most important ingredient in the recipe for catastrophe, the fact that so many people flocked to the oil itself. Their own poverty and ignorance certainly was responsible, but it may also have been the fact that there is barely a prior event of oil igniting with people around for them to be aware of and so know that this petrol might also ignite and burn them. If such events happened in Pakistan more often beforehand, or happened once before in their own area, they would have been the wiser for it.
The rarity of the hazard should not excuse our indifference. Tragedies are the same and it does not matter what caused them. If we are not ready for a disaster because it is so unheard of, we need to overcome that stumbling block. People must be kept safe from anything and we must be ready to deal with anything that could happen. The Bahawalpur tragedy could have been averted if people had awareness of the danger.
That is commonly how it goes for disasters. People become aware of the risk only after one has already happened. But it is not the right idea to use that as a yardstick for preparation. It is absolutely vital that people learn the lessons from the tragedies that have already passed, but it is also vital that they do not have to, since we do not want bad things to happen in the first place. So in order to determine the risk of a disaster happening, if we cannot turn to history, we don’t wait for that history to be made, we instead turn to science. We gather information about the circumstances around us to gain hazard risk awareness.
In situations like the Bahawalpur tragedy, however, there was not knowledge that people, or at least the authorities, were lacking. Every piece of information regarding the hazard was already in their heads. They just needed to put it all together. They would then have gathered that poverty may drive people towards spilt oil and that a truck as shoddy as that could crash easily. Then, the authorities would be prompted to take measures to safeguard against such an event anywhere in Pakistan.
Or would they? After having the knowledge and the intelligence to process it, people then need the motivation to do something. Maybe that is what is lacking most in Pakistan. There is a lot of corruption in Pakistan, which means many of those in positions of trust are willing to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Apathy too is common.
Then there is the question of delegating responsibility. It is the direct responsibility of the various authorities in Pakistan to do something about hazards like oil tanker spills. Like any functioning nation (which is to say anywhere that is not Somalia), we have certain official institutions with certain roles. Many of them are supposed to be involved in ensuring public safety. Public safety is also the responsibility of private agencies if the risk concerned involves something that they are in charge of. For example, the companies that own or operate tanker trucks are supposed to ensure that they are safety compliant. The drivers are supposed to carry out their jobs in as safe a manner as possible. If all these people don’t do what they are supposed to do, then the public institutions are supposed to come in and show them who is boss. But all of us also have our part to play in protecting the public. We should look at what we could have done to prevent something like Bahawalpur, what all could have been done that the rules do not require.
Let us look at all the circumstances behind the calamity at Bahawalpur to get a clear idea of all the factors making such an event possible. We have a tanker truck, a product of industrialization, interact with simple agriculturalists in a remote, rural area. Transportation routes are special kinds of places, where things that normally are far apart from each other can interact. A highway, for example, can pass through remote towns, farmlands, and pristine wildernesses.
Such circumstances create a special kind of risk during accidents, as people can come across things in their midst that they are unfamiliar with. People living alongside a major route, in particular, have all the rift raft of the world passing by them all the time. If a tanker truck spilled onto a busy street in a city, then people might stay away because they are familiar with the hazards of oil. But in Bahawalpur, we had rural villagers ignorant of industrial hazards. It is not clear how big a part that may have played in the tragedy. They already knew enough about petrol to want to get their hands on it desperately. Perhaps they just did not know that it is not just in a controlled environment like a stove that the chemical could easily alight. It can also happen in a random, open environment.
As both a transportation and an industrial accident, the Bahawalpur tragedy gives us the opportunity to discuss the state of transport and industrial safety in Pakistan, both huge problems. Traffic accidents in Pakistan are very common and regularly claim large numbers of victims. The railroads are the worst, but the roads are also quite hazardous. Industrial standards are low and industrial legislation in the nation is inadequate, plus it is poorly enforced. Industrial workers in Pakistan thus always live under great risk. When you combine transport and industry, however, then you are likely to get situations where unsuspecting non-workers fall victim to industrial accidents.
Pakistan is a rapidly developing nation but still very poor. That sort of situation creates the perfect recipe for a disaster like Bahawalpur. We have to make sure that we do not push our prosperity at the expense of our safety. That is a chronic condition across the world and especially happens in the competitive world of business and commerce. A business that is 80 percent as good as a competitor will not get 80 percent customers compared to the competitor. So, industries always have an incentive to ignore safety concerns. Hence there are laws that prevent this from happening, but in Pakistan, the authorities cannot be relied on very well.
Bahawalpur was throughout a failure of the authorities. Regulatory authorities did not stop a truck as poorly designed as that from plying the roads in such a hazardous way. The police were not able to keep the crowd away from the oil. The hospitals lacked the full capacity to deliver timely treatment to the victims. But the big player in the disaster was not really those who have the responsibility of protecting us. A tanker crash like this one could easily have turned out with nobody being hurt at all. The key, and most avoidable, ingredient in the catastrophe was that so many people eagerly put themselves in harm’s way.
By virtue of it being a disaster caused largely by the actions of its victims, the Bahawalpur oil spill disaster is an event that calls to our attention the role of the potential victims in disaster risk reduction. Every time a disaster befalls people or there is a danger of such, what those people do and what they can do is crucial. That is something we all know very well. But we are not always sure of its importance or its potential. Disaster risk reduction, of course, should not consist only of people at risk or people affected working to help themselves. People should help other people and the foundation of that help comes from authorities, those in positions of power or special capabilities who lead the way in protecting the masses.
A typical example is a team of first responders who are ready to help out in any crisis at any time. They are important because it cannot always be relied upon that people will save themselves. First responders are professionals and devote their lives to making themselves capable of doing this.
But people must also be able to protect themselves and that was sorely lacking in Bahawalpur. Everybody has survival instincts but these were not followed for petroleum. The Bahawalpur villagers did not have to know how to save themselves from a dangerous situation. They just had to stay away from it in the first place. There are two reasons why this could have happened. Either they did not know of the danger or they were desperate and judged the benefits of oil scooping to outweigh the risks. It would be worthwhile to interview the survivors of Bahawalpur Tragedy.
The first reason is simply an example of the extreme ignorance prevailing in Pakistan, how deprived of essential knowledge so many people are. The second is an example of how much want there is in the nation, how deprived the people are of the means to sustain themselves. But it also is about values. Governance is a code of conduct, including cognizance that people’s safety must be put above all else.
Basically, Ahmedpur Sharqia, the rural area where the victims lived, is a deprived place. By improving the quality of basic existence, the risk from the oil tanker crash could have been lowered. Education is what is needed the most. But if we cannot make things better in general, we can focus specifically on keeping the people safe from hazards by teaching them about it.
How could that have been done for Ahmedpur Sharqia and the oil spill? As part of safety awareness, people must know all about flammable chemicals they could come across in their lives.
Disaster awareness is what is needed most of all for disaster management. It involves knowing what could pose a threat to people and what can be done about it. The knowledge about a certain disaster risk must exist in the first place. That is what is required for the authorities to manage that risk. Then, there has to be found ways to share that knowledge with the common masses – the large numbers who are at risk.
As horrific as the Bahawalpur tragedy is, its lessons are very important. The calamity can guide us in so many ways and we will be able to go far in not only keeping people safe from spilt petrol but from hazards in general in Pakistan.
Going back to the disaster itself, a year has passed by since it occurred and now we must look at how its impact has been since and its after-effects now. A lot of people died and that will be felt tremendously on the area affected. Countless people are now bereft of loved ones. Many families are deprived of members. Some have even been mostly wiped out. For poor people, the impact of the loss of loved ones goes beyond just the grief. They can also find themselves in much more difficult circumstances. These people need our help. They have to be supported so they can cope with the impact of the disaster.
In addition to the departed and the bereaved, there is, perhaps most important of all, the living victims of the disaster to look after. These are the people who were injured by the blaze. Some physical injuries heal eventually. Others do not. When people are covered in burning oil, the latter kind of injury ensues in abundance. There are many whose lives are forever changed by the Bahawalpur fire. Many are physically disabled and mentally scarred.
The disaster of 25 June, 2017, is an issue that still has to be managed as the disabled and disfigured are still there to be taken care of. We need to take a look at them and see how they are doing now. If there is any more help that can be delivered to them, they must be provided with it.
All those affected must be gotten back on their feet to the extent possible. And we must do all we can to ensure people are never endangered in this way ever again and are generally protected from harm and tragedy. Bahawalpur is a wake-up call to Pakistani masses and governing authorities.

Shahzeb Khan is a writer, documentary maker, and environment activist. His work has been commended by the US president Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship. He is the director of Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management (PPLDM).

A Dangerously Uncertain Summer Monsoon Lies Ahead

It is now the beginning of the 2018 summer monsoon season in Pakistan. It is a season in which the aridity that prevails in the country the rest of the year is halted for a few months. Air currents bring huge quantities of moisture from the Indian Ocean onto land to provide Pakistan with an abundance of rainfall. The monsoon relieves us from the heat and sun of summer and provides our nation with its lifeline.
But every time that Pakistanis await the monsoon rains, they do so with trepidation. The monsoon currents that sweep over the Indian Subcontinent in the summer are highly erratic and unreliable. In some years, they bring less rain than normal and cause drought. Other years, they bring heavier rainfall than normal and cause flooding. In fact, monsoon flooding is one of the most common natural disasters in Pakistan.
We have particular cause to be concerned this year. In recent times, the monsoon has been behaving differently, no doubt due to climate change. Right now, the threat of a dry spell looms over us. May and June saw severely hot weather across much of Pakistan, including heat waves in Sindh, where dozens of people died from heat-related causes. Despite the Monsoon rains starting in late June, dry conditions continued in many areas of the country. Most of the monsoon rainfall has occurred not in northern Punjab, where it usually does, but south, in the general area around Lahore, where they have not done much good for farmers. Now we have parched conditions so bad that the Tarbela Dam has reached dead level for the first time ever. Water levels in Mangla Dam are also dangerously low. It seems we are in real danger of a dry monsoon season, even drought, ahead.
At the same time, a monsoon bringing floods is also a big danger, as it has always been in the land of Pakistan throughout the ages. In fact, in recent years, that hazard has suddenly become much bigger. We have been in a period in which the monsoon rains have been more disastrous than ever. It all began 9 years ago in 2010. That was the year that Pakistan was struck by an unprecedented calamity, monsoon floods, that were mind-bogglingly huge. At their height in late August, they submerged a fifth of Pakistan. According to government estimates, 1,800 people died and 20 million were affected.
It was not just the amount of water involved which was unprecedented about the 2010 monsoon season. Rainclouds reached and flooded areas in Pakistan that never before in recorded history saw monsoon rainfall, such as FATA, northern Khyber-Paktunkwha, and Gilgit-Baltistan. Also, while monsoon clouds in Pakistan are usually 10,000 feet high, these reached as high as 40,000 feet. Everything about the monsoon basically changed. The sheer scale of this flood would not be repeated since, but the deluge was only the beginning of a series of yearly monsoon floods.
Gigantic monsoon floods struck Pakistan again in 2011, starting in mid-August, concentrated mostly in Sindh, which saw only riverine flooding in 2010 but which was now to be much more severely affected. It was as if the monsoon came to deal unfinished business from last year. Monsoon rainfall does not often occur in the south of Pakistan and rarely causes flooding. The rainfall in 2011 was the highest ever recorded in Sindh and so the resulting floods were also unprecedented. The toll is not very clear, but reportedly, 520 died and 9 million were affected. In 2012, severe monsoon flooding occurred again, caused by rains that fell in the middle of the country throughout the month of September, relatively late for the monsoon season. Northern Sindh, southern Punjab, and eastern Balochistan were covered in floods. The death toll was reportedly 571 and 4.8 million were affected. The three years of out-of-control monsoons combined were a huge calamity for Pakistan, a barrage of disasters that ravaged the nation. The worst had now passed, but the monsoon climate afterwards still did not get back to normal.
In 2013, flooding came in spates across wide areas of Pakistan, especially Punjab and Sindh, from the end of July to the middle of August. The toll is estimated at 1.5 million affected and 234 people dead.
In 2014, the monsoon season went along fine until early September, when severe rainfall broke out more up north of where it usually does in the subcontinent, affecting both India and Pakistan. In Pakistan, the rains caused flooding in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, again where rains never fell before 2010, and floodwaters moved through the rivers of Indian Punjab into Pakistan’s Punjab Province, wreaking major havoc until September 26. Two and a half million of the country’s denizens were affected and 367 died.
2015 was comparatively a mild year, but through July and August, there occurred flooding, that while not severe, had nearly the same unprecedented distribution of 2010, with northern Sindh, western Punjab, eastern Balochistan, most of Khyber-Paktunkwha, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir seeing inundation. Chitral, one of the parts of Pakistan newly introduced to the monsoon in 2010, was the most severely affected area. According to reports, one and a half million were affected across the nation and 238 died.
In 2016, finally, the nation was spared severe calamity, but tragedy still ensued from flooding. Small flash floods far and wide in the country in July and August reportedly killed 153 people. Chitral was once again badly affected.
So there were seven years of flood season after flood season in Pakistan, whereas before, monsoon floods usually come every few years. I took note of this phenomenon in a blog post I wrote after the 2017 monsoon season, Changing Monsoon Pattern and Flood Preparation in Pakistan (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2018/01/27/changing-monsoon-pattern-and-flood-preparation-in-pakistan/), and dealt with its possible implications. Not only is the land of Pakistan not known to have ever experienced flooding like the 2010 deluge, it never had so many consecutive years of monsoon flooding. Clearly, the 2010s is the decade of floods for Pakistan. The monsoon season behaved radically different from how it has always been and the occurrence of flooding skyrocketed. The important question is whether this is still the case. Will the era of floods that began in 2010 continue or are things getting back to normal?
Here, we first have to look at how the monsoon has been behaving lately, starting with what transpired last year, during the summer monsoon of 2017. Right from the beginning, late June, rainfall was persistently severe and flash floods ensued in many places, although riverine floods were too low to be of any consequence. Deaths were caused very quickly, with a reported death toll of 43 by July 5, according to NDMA. Only some of those deaths were due to flooding, as rain can be dangerous even if it does not submerge land. The situation continued for two months. Then, at the end of August, significant flooding occurred for the first time as a massive urban flood occurred in Karachi, where, on the 30th and 31th, as much rain fell as usually does in one month. 40 people were estimated to be killed because of that. Afterwards, there was a dry spell in Pakistan and heavy rains continued only across northern Pakistan for the next month. The monsoon rains ended rather late, at the beginning of October, by which time, they were estimated to have taken the lives of 157 people over the whole season.
Altogether, it was not a very mild monsoon season. But it continued a trend inherent since 2010. Each monsoon season produced less flooding in Pakistan than the one before it, with the exception of 2014, which saw more flooding than 2013. If the trend continues, we will barely suffer anything in 2018. 2017 may thus be the herald of a return to a calm climate. But as we are now two weeks into the 2018 monsoon season, let us look at how it has been so far.
The first monsoon rains began in late June and broke the heat spell, providing people with much needed relief. But the rains also quickly brought new problems. Like in 2017, 2018’s monsoon rainfall turned out to be severe early on, but with one big difference. Heavy rainfall occurred only in Punjab, particularly the eastern area around Lahore. In the rest of the country, rainfall was sparse. Starting in 2nd of July, two days of rainfall, amounting to eight inches, flooded streets in Lahore and caused the deaths of 15 people. According to sources, it was the heaviest rainfall Lahore saw since 1980. Monsoon rainfall also was unusually for this early a stage in the summer monsoon.
So there you have it. Our current monsoon season is already off to a wild start. It is already like the other years in our current decade in having rainfall of an unusual nature. If the rainfall has been so severe this early, then it is likely that there is much more to come in the months ahead. This is an urgent call for Pakistan and its people to be on alert for yet another season of damaging floods.
At the same time, rains were only unusually heavy in some areas. In most of Pakistan, they were very deficient. So it looks like Pakistan will be spared one disaster only to face another, water shortage, possibly even drought. Unlike floods, it has been quite some time since Pakistan suffered a monsoon drought, but after the monsoon has exerted itself so much since 2010, maybe it will now be taking a rest and afflicting us with a drought to cap off our string of flood disasters. Here is an even more troubling thought. Just as we suffered a series of floods, what if this is the beginning of a series of droughts?
It is widely feared that water shortages are going to be the norm in Pakistan’s future. There are many reasons for this. Pakistan’s rapidly growing population is the main one. But another major factor behind Pakistan’s water-insecure future is climate change. The monsoon is a very unstable system and severe disruptions to the global climate can easily cause it to deliver less water to Pakistan at certain times.
It looks like our “future,” in which water shortages and drought are greater hazards, has started already.
While we should be very wary of a water shortage in the current monsoon season, we should not be so complacent that flooding will be averted. Look at what happened before. It is actually getting to be a pattern nowadays that the summer monsoon is dry at first and brings very heavy rains in its later stages. This was particularly the case in 2011 and 2012. In 2011, before mid-August, monsoon rainfall was so low that a dry spell ensued. It prompted the authorities to open the gates wide to allow as much water to flow through as possible, which exacerbated the flooding that came when rainfall spiked. Maybe the weather is laying the same trap for us now.
The fact is, we need to be ready for any eventuality. I wrote about the need to be prepared for the 2018 summer monsoon in Changing Monsoon Patterns and Flood Preparation in Pakistan six months ago, and now the time has come. The monsoon season ahead is likely to bring any kind of hazard. We cannot be certain exactly what will happen, but we have to watch out, whether for heavy rains and floods wreaking havoc or dry spells and drought rendering people destitute. Perhaps even both could occur this monsoon season. It could be that monsoon rainfall will be concentrated in some areas or at some times, causing floods there or at those times, while drought will occur in other places or at other times.
We have just days to get ready, which is precious little time. The capacity to cope with floods and drought comes mainly from being prepared far in advance. Pakistan, its people, and its authorities need to spring into action and be prepared for whatever this monsoon could bring. We must assume that anything could happen. It could be a severe water shortage impacting the nation’s food supply, or devastating rains from Chitral to Sindh. We need to take broad measures to afford ourselves a degree of safety from any eventuality. Weather forecasters must monitor the weather very closely and try their best to forecast. The nation has to take action accordingly. Our preparations for both floods and water shortages must accommodate each other. The mistake we made in 2011 must not be repeated.
There are many ways we can ready ourselves for floods. We can keep flood response systems on high alert all across the nation, such as flood warning systems and rescue services. We need to make sure our water infrastructure is quick to respond. The people need to have evacuation routes mapped out. If only urban floods are to happen, we need to clear the streets of trash to prevent the clogging of drains. As for the possibility of drought, preparation might be more difficult. It will be an event with likely longer-term consequences and preparation usually also has to be long-term. In the little time that we have, it seems all we can do is operate the Indus irrigation system in such a way as to collect as much water as possible and we also need to stockpile on food and water.
It is a time for our nation to rise together and get on its feet in dealing with an issue of urgency. It is a test of how quickly we can act. We must consider the range of possibilities and plan accordingly. If anything does happen during this monsoon season, we must be smart and swift in responding to it. Afterwards, we must learn to apply the lessons to the future. When this monsoon season has passed we must focus on preparation for the 2019 monsoon season and beyond. To get an idea of what will happen, we need to understand what has happened.
We first need to find out how the train of flood seasons affecting Pakistan since 2010 happened. Scientists have devised explanations behind the flooding of each individual monsoon season, but we have yet to hear of a theory explaining a link between them, other than climate change. Global warming caused by human activities is almost certainly changing the behavior of weather all around the globe and is predicted to severely affect the Asian monsoon and lead to more flooding and drought. We need to determine exactly how this will happen or what are the difference possibilities. To explain the floods more specifically, it should be noted that July 2010, the start of Pakistan’s massive deluge, was at the end of the hottest twelve-month period in the world since global temperature records began in 1880. Afterwards, the world continued to break 12-month heat records continuously. If climate change is responsible for what the nation has experienced in the past several years, it means that 2010 may be the start of a new era and that our monsoon will never get back to the way it was.
Such information may help us go a long way in predicting what the monsoon will do in the future. We have a broad need to study the impact of global warming on the Asian monsoon. Monsoon hazards for Pakistan are basically changing and we need to know just how it is changing so we can know what the future holds in store. In order to be resilient in the face of whatever the weather brings us, we need science.
Scientific investigation is something we need not have to do on our own. Knowledge is often relatively easy to gain it and once it exists, it can spread by itself. Scholars of the world have an insatiable desire to understand the entire world. They do not limit themselves to studying what lies within their nation or is of concern to their nation. Additionally, Earth’s atmosphere is a deeply interconnected system and weather phenomena tend to be wide-ranging and show no concern for borders.
Scientists in the world’s developed countries can be easily compelled to study the Asian monsoon, one of the planet’s most important weather systems. It is a top priority of scientists to study the possible impact of climate change and the monsoon is one of the most important subjects in this regard. As the vital question is what to expect every monsoon season, we can persuade bright minds and scientific talents from anywhere in the world (they do not need to come to Pakistan) to study the causes of the great floods of the first half of this decade and why we have seen floods so many year in a row. We also need to work together with our neighbors in this matter, as it is in our common interest. It is time to embark on the path of discovery regarding the future of our monsoon.
In the meantime, we Pakistanis need to find out how we can cope with floods and droughts and work towards that end. We have plenty of time to prepare for whatever eventuality the 2019 monsoon season will bring, the tenth since 2010, and whatever happens in this year’s monsoon can give us clues as to what we can expect from now on. But we must also do all that we can to survive any crisis that could happen right now. Both flooding and drought are likely possibilities this monsoon season. So as monsoon currents from the Indian Ocean head towards our nation, we must brace ourselves for both threats.
Along with this monsoon season comes the 2018 Pakistan General Elections, which will be concluded on July 25. With the current circumstances, we have a good opportunity to make environmental problems and disaster risk reduction central issues in the election. We should judge our candidates by how well they are dealing with our current monsoon problems and what problems could come just ahead and by their formula for managing disasters and dealing with climate change’s impact on our nation in general. Then, by July 25, we may be able to elect the government that is sensitized to get us through the month of August, when the summer monsoon is the most hazardous, (and afterwards). It should also be a government that will set the right course from now on in disaster risk reduction and environmental management and help Pakistan to brace itself for the future.
As we proceed through the summer monsoon, the most important but also hazardous season of the year, our best strategy is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
AUTHOR’S BIO
Shahzeb Khan is a writer, documentary maker, and environment activist. His work has been commended by the US president Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship. He is the director of Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management (PPLDM), official website http://www.ppldm.net and blog at http://www.pldmsite.wordpress.com. He can be reached at skhan@ppldm.net

The Future of Humanity’s Oasis

Earth Day, celebrated on April 22 each year, is a day of immense importance. The importance far outweighs the attention we pay to it. Some environmentalists argue that we put aside only one day for celebrating the one planet that we all live on and that every day should be Earth Day. Indeed our showing of concern for the Earth should not end when 22 April ends. So let us continue our discussion of the subject. For Earth Day, PPDLM posted a lengthy article on the significance of this year’s World Water Day for Pakistan, as water is Pakistan’s biggest environmental issue. We shall reflect on the points in there but first, let us pay attention to what Earth Day means to us.

PPLDM is dedicated to dealing with the hazards that exist in Pakistan. People suffer the risk of many kinds of disasters and live through some disaster nearly all the time. We in Pakistan need to deal with the risk as well as the actual presence of disaster. We also need to know where things will go from here. It is as important to focus on the future as on the present. It is quite evident that things will not continue to be the same as they are now for this is a rapidly changing world. That holds very much true for hazards. When we scrutinize the future, we find that Pakistan’s hazard situation is going to become worse and worse with, distressingly, no end in sight.

As Pakistan develops and the population grows, we will become more vulnerable to natural hazards. It is not just that higher population means more will be vulnerable to natural events. For example, more and more people are moving into cities. In 2007, for the first time in world history, more people in the world lived in cities than elsewhere, and the growth of urbanization is continuing. This means, for example, that earthquakes will become a greater danger. Seismologists now fear that an earthquake with a death toll of more than one million could become a possibility this century. Increasing development also means that people build infrastructure in formerly unoccupied areas where natural risks are high. An advancing world makes its human population more vulnerable to the natural threats that have always been there.

As technology advances and development expands, there are more things that can go wrong in terms of accidents what we would call artificial hazards. Everything that we build around us can harm us and the more we build, the more we are in danger. Now, in the modern era, many of us fear we live under apocalyptic threats. In the 1940s, for example, when the nuclear bomb was being developed, some scientists thought the detonation of such a device could set the entire atmosphere alight, as the extreme energy released could start a chain reaction igniting nitrogen and oxygen everywhere. That turned out to be ridiculous, but technology is just continuing to advance at an accelerated rate, making it more and more likely that something bad could happen. We live at risk of accidents, especially when development is done in a shoddy manner. For example, slums and shantytowns, which form when urbanization proceeds faster than we can handle, are places of great risk.

None of this, strictly speaking, however, concerns Earth Day. Earth Day is about the effects that human beings are having on the planet, on the changes we are making to the natural environment. Some of these changes can be detrimental to our well-being and all too often, they bite back in the form of disasters.

When we alter natural processes, we increase the risk of natural hazards. When disruption to the way nature behaves occurs, it is more often than not dangerous for us because nature’s balance can be temporarily thrown out of whack. The one biggest way this is happening is climate change, the warming up of the global climate due to the energy usages that power civilization. There are already signs that climate change is happening and among them is the fact that weather (tropical cyclones, flooding, drought, etc.) and weather-related disasters (wildfires, landslides, epidemics, etc.) are getting worse everywhere. Another big way is the destruction of natural environments through the expansion of agriculture or industry. Removal of vegetation makes hazards such as landslides and flooding more likely and makes us less protected from hazards such as storm surges and tsunamis.

Artificial accidents can have effects on the natural environment which are hazardous for us. The biggest such hazard is a nuclear power plant meltdown. Such an event releases radiation that can get into the air, the water, the soil, and living things. People are then vulnerable to taking in this harmful radiation through breathing, drinking, and eating. Where people are at risk from this depends on the natural conditions surrounding the power plant. Wind blowing in one direction can take the radiation far and a meltdown occurring next to the ocean can result in marine ecosystems over a wide area being contaminated.

Natural events can at times take what we put into the environment and use it to harm us. For example, in London, the air used to be thick with sulfur dioxide from coal burning. Then, in 1952, a great big fog blanketed the city, with the water droplets absorbing the sulfur dioxide and turning into sulfuric acid which was inhaled by people. 12,000 people were to die prematurely from one of the world’s less noticeable disasters. However, the risk from artificial hazards is much lower than the risk from natural hazards.

All in all, human impacts on the environment are a huge factor behind the disaster risk we live under.

We can work to manage the hazards we face on a short-term basis, but PPLDM recognizes the long-term situation that we face and it is one of its top priorities to ready ourselves for that future in advance and find out how to mitigate it. It recognizes the need for timely action. One of our big obstacles is absence of knowledge – we do not really know what is coming and what we can do about it. The first thing we need to save our planet is science.

Earth Day was founded in 1970 by US senator Gaylord Nelson. It came as the result of growing consciousness over environmental degradation as a result of events such as the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill and the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. One of the most important factors behind the fostering of this consciousness came from when we went beyond the world.

Near the end of 1968, the Apollo 8 mission was launched to put the first men in orbit around the Moon. On 24 December, while in orbit, the astronauts spotted their home planet, half-illuminated, rising from the side of the Moon and took a color photograph of it now known as Earthrise. Humanity, however, did not get a clear picture of the entire Earth until December 7, 1972, when astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission were 18,000 miles away from home while going to the Moon, they took a picture of the Earth that came to be known as the Blue Marble. As an epilogue, on Valentine’s Day, 1990, Voyager 1, while heading towards the outer reaches of the Solar System, was turned back towards Earth one last time and took a picture while 4 billion miles away that was digitally transmitted back to us. In that picture, crossed by rays of light due to the effects of the Sun on the camera, our planet, the planet we live on, Earth, appears as a very tiny, barely-noticeable dot of light.

These pictures had a profound impact on how humanity looked at Planet Earth. Before we took the earth for granted as the vast expanse we could live in. But from an extraterrestrial perspective, we could see clearly that all of humanity and all of life has only one home, one sphere floating through an endless expanse of emptiness, an oasis in the desert of space. We realized how limited the entire world was and therefore how fragile it was, how limited everything on it was. Earthrise started this feeling and Blue Marble put everything into full view as we got to see the full magnificence of our planet, showing how much it has and yet how that is all we have. Earth was now plainly a single place of its own, lonely and singular in the totality of the universe.

It got us thinking about wars and human conflicts, both how ridiculous they were and how bad they were. At that time, they were a huge concern. 54 years before Earthrise, World War 1 broke out and made the world feel the horrific impact of war for the first time. Despite that, it led subsequently to several decades of conflict and the threat of conflict across the globe, one of which, the Vietnam War, was occurring during the space flights. The Vietnam War fermented a wave of anti-war sentiment that gripped the Western World, to which the photos contributed. In addition, in those days, there was the constant threat of nuclear war between powerful countries, which could be a massive disaster for the world. Now, people could have a full view of what it was that could be wrecked by nuclear war, in fact, even be lost.

At the same time, in addition to what human beings were doing to each other, people were becoming more mindful of what human beings were doing to the environment they were living in, the very planet itself. When the pictures of that planet were released, concern for the state of the Earth was thrust forward in the minds of people. Earthrise kick-started the environmental movement, leading to the first Earth Day less than two years later, and two years later, the release of Blue Marble firmly cemented environmentalism. It has been that way ever since. The Space Race gave everybody the ability to look at their whole planet from afar. It opened up a world of inspiration.

That inspiration, ironically, was only made possible by the very processes enabling the degradation of the planet. Space exploration is the very height of what human beings can do thanks to their technological advancement which the Earth cannot handle. Indeed, the whole point was brought home through the Earth photographs. In the past, the world really was immense and humans were just a tiny part of it. But when we have reached the point at which we can leave the world and look at it from afar, we will find that we have shrunk the world considerably and made it more vulnerable to our presence.

At the same time that we are ruining the world more and more, we are becoming more and more able to experience the world in all its majesty and beauty. It is from up close as well as from afar. Thus, many of us have easy access to an endless supply of photos and videos of the natural environment everywhere. Some of us also can easily and quickly visit natural environments across the world. By hopping onto airplanes, we can go hiking through a mountainous landscape one month, and trek through a tropical rainforest the next month. That makes globe-trotters and tourists potential forces for environmental awareness.

In addition to this, Mankind’s scientific knowledge is accumulating at a tremendous pace. While subduing and altering the earth, we can meticulously study it. We are learning about our natural environment at roughly the same pace we are losing it and this holds the key to what hope there is for the planet’s future. Our learning tells us how detrimental our actions are to our planet – and in so many ways.

Earth simply is not designed to accommodate the modern civilization and our burgeoning population. It is limited in its capacity to support us and its ability to sustain us is ephemeral in many ways. We are also changing it to a great extent and harming it severely. The entire planet is enormous and humans are insignificant compared to it. But that only means that we cannot affect the bulk of the planet, the huge quantities of metal and rock making up its insides. What is in severe trouble is the natural environment that makes up the surface of the Earth, the air, water, and sediment covering the planet in thin layers. This global environment is home to the biosphere, the living things which inhabit it thickly and which have also shaped it and influence it heavily. Human beings have made themselves the dominant life form on Earth and their dominance is spreading endlessly. They now pretty much rule over the biosphere and have taken on the role of shaping air, water, and earth. The environment, however, is very fragile and all the rapid change we are creating haphazardly is not going well.

The natural environment is all that there is to provide for us. Yet, it is limited in how much it can provide while humanity is not being limited at all in what it is taking and what it is doing. That has long been evident. For example, at the time of the Roman Empire, there existed an advanced civilization once developed in the depth of the Saharan Desert known as the Garamantes. They existed because underneath the sands of Libya lay a vast bed of water which accumulated over millennia from what little rain fell in the region. In just a few hundred years, the Berber tribe dug wells and built an underground irrigation system to extract this water, becoming wealthy and powerful. Inevitably, the water ran out and the Garamantes collapsed about 1,500 years ago and gave way to barren sand dunes once again.

Today, the middle third of the United States of America is mostly arid but underneath there lies the biggest underground reservoir of freshwater in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer. For over a century now, farmers in the Midwest have been pumping up this water on a massive scale to foster a major part of America’s agricultural prosperity. The only problem is, the aquifer comes from the end of the last Ice Age. More than 12,000 years ago, vast sheets of glacial ice, miles thick, covered much of North America. When the world warmed up afterwards, the entire ice sheet melted and much of the vast amounts of water that melted seeped underground to create the aquifer and have rested there ever since. Little water has been moving into the aquifer from other sources all this time. Being a nation with such a huge demand for resources, America is now basically draining the aquifer, and draining it fast. It is going to run out.

One might say that the Garamantes were only an Iron Age tribe of people living in the desert and so were vulnerable, but this is the United States of America. It is vast, it is powerful, and its prosperity is immense. The fact is, both societies, and all societies, operate within the limitations of the earth. The rules apply to them equally.

Besides these ancient reserves of water deep below the ground, known as fossil water, which are just a part of humanity’s freshwater resources, which, by the way, are limited all around, fossil fuels provide almost all of the energy for the machinery that powers modern civilization. But coal, petroleum, and natural gas formed over millions of years from organic matter that fossilized without decaying and are basically resting in the bowels of the Earth completely still. They also will run out inevitably and who knows how we will cope?

The photographs of Earth taken from spacecraft provide us with the “big picture” in terms of space. But in order to grasp the reality of the problem between humanity and the planet, we also need to look at the big picture in terms of time. The best way we have so far of doing this is looking at a graph made of the geologic time scale. Planet Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. Life first appeared 3.5 billion years ago. Our modern ecosystems of plants and animals started spreading all over the world about 500 million years ago. The modern human race appeared 500,000 years ago. The roots of civilization began 10,000 years ago. The Industrial Revolution started in earnest two hundred years ago. “Our world” has been in existence for just a minute fraction of the time the Earth has been around. The natural forces that have shaped the planet the most operate over immense periods of time and the human forces now altering the world, overwhelming the faster and smaller-scale processes of nature, have been around since yesterday compared to the former.

Mark Twain once said, “If the Eiffel Tower was now representing the world’s age, the film of paint on the pinnacle knob would represent man’s share of that age and everybody would perceive that the paint was what the tower was built for.” Indeed, the entire world is acting as if Earth’s entire history was for the benefit of our modern human civilization. But that is not really the case. Furthermore, just as the paint on the Eiffel tower can be easily flaked off, so modern civilization and the minute period of time it occupies can easily come to an end. The world therefore has a distressing and dangerous future, but to gain the crucial understanding of what may really happen, we need to look at what has been sustaining Earth’s natural environment all along and how we are now exploiting it.

In the natural world, what is taken is given back and that is what sustains all life. For example, animals breathe oxygen and eat plants to produce carbon dioxide which is exhaled into the air and that carbon dioxide is taken in by plants to produce oxygen which is consumed by the animals along with the plants. Not only are we people now taking too much from the Earth, what we are giving it back in return is mostly unusable and poisonous. As we burn the fossil fuels that has been building up in the Earth’s crust over millions of years, we are ultimately going to remove it all, but in the meantime, we are turning it into other things, much of which is carbon dioxide. All this carbon dioxide emitted by our energy usage cannot be used, destroyed, or contained and just goes into the atmosphere, changing its composition.

Carbon dioxide absorbs heat rays emitted when sunlight is absorbed by the Earth’s surface. As such, the Earth’s entire climate is warming up. Estimates are that nearly a trillion and a half tons of carbon dioxide were produced by human activity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and that, now, nearly forty billion tons of carbon dioxide are released per year! And, the trend is rising. This undoubtedly will cause global warming. It is already quite evident, as most of the hottest years ever recorded have just happened. In the years and decades ahead, it is not clear what exactly will be the effects of climate change, but it is quite obvious that we will be, and are already, experiencing severe disruptions to the workings of the Earth’s climate that will by and large affect humanity negatively. Among the biggest impacts will be redistribution of Earth’s freshwater, which will put agriculture at risk.

Besides carbon dioxide, more immediate severe harm to the environment is happening due to pollution from the great variety of other waste that we produce in huge quantities. Burning of fossil fuels also is producing air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and soot. Rain can wash them out of the air but this rain, which is acidic, causes even more harm. Water supplies are polluted by a variety of harmful chemicals which can make them unhealthy to drink or unsuitable for living things to live in. Most of the enormous amounts of plastic that we trash travels far and wide into natural environments and harms animals in many ways. Certain gases that we have been emitting into the air in small amounts release chlorine atoms that are destroying the Earth’s ozone layer in the upper atmosphere that shield us from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, making us more vulnerable to solar radiation.

Carbon dioxide, at least, can be absorbed by nature. All photosynthetic organisms, such as phytoplankton in the oceans and vegetation on land, need to consume carbon dioxide and the carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere can be turned into biomass. However, this is not happening because we are wantonly clearing the Earth of vegetation, especially trees, to make way for our agriculture, industries, and human habitation.

This is one of our big impacts on the Earth, destroying its living ecosystems by pushing it aside or overexploiting it. As human civilization, which is based upon the cultivation of only a few kinds of plants and animals, expands rapidly across the planet, wild habitats and wildlife populations are being wiped out on a grand scale. That we are killing off the other life-forms inhabiting this planet is the crux of our impact on the environment. In addition to that, of course, is that we are also killing ourselves, more slowly, at the same time. The subject of Earth Day basically boils down to the fact that other living things are being killed and humanity is being sickened.

So the important question is what can be done about it? We are barely able to even answer that question yet. Perhaps the very capabilities we have gained from the modern growth of civilization can be put to use in solving the problems we are causing. After all, it is through modern technology and development that we are finding out what is happening to the natural world, and acquiring the knowledge to do something about it. But we should not count on it too much as a source of actually helping the Earth and restoring its natural, healthy state. Our influence on Earth so far is doing almost nothing but hurting it and so how can it start healing it? This is all because what we are capable of doing gets more and more out of our control.

We must be mindful of it. Hubris, not just ignorance, may blind us to this reality. Consider the North Korean regime and its nuclear program. The North Korean government has described the atomic bombs it has built as a “sword” with which it can defend its people. But is a nuke really like an actual sword, the top personnel weapon of more primitive times? With a sword, a person carrying it can pierce and cut through other things in any way he wants and is quite safe from it at the same time. A gun in hand is much more powerful, but it can only penetrate in one direction and the bullet can ricochet and hit anywhere else. A bomb can be vastly more powerful. A person with a grenade can use it to annihilate his enemies instantly. But he has to throw it from afar, because when the grenade is used, it creates an explosion which exerts itself equally in all directions. Shrapnel from the blast could even go far and wide.

And what about a nuclear bomb, a more modern invention and the ultimate in our ability to attack, able to wipe out an entire city? A nuclear blast produces great amounts of harmful radiation which spreads through the environment. When a city is vaporized by a nuke, the dust created from it can pick up the radiation and be dispersed far and wide by wind, afflicting people in other parts of the world with horrific sickness and death.

The North Korean regime must really think of itself as being big and powerful thanks to its nuclear arsenal. But it is only the arsenal which is powerful. The North Koreans and all other human beings are humble and vulnerable in its face. You cannot make sure that nuclear weapons will only do what you want them to do. Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba once learned that. At one point during the Cold War, he advocated that the Soviet Union toughen up to America and even suggested a nuclear strike. The USSR sent its scientists over to Cuba to explain to him how much radiation will be produced by a strike on American cities, that it will be carried by wind towards the Caribbean, and what effect it will have on Cuba. Fidel must have thought that because nukes were something created by people, it is entirely in people’s control. But that is not true.

Nuclear energy is a natural force. Hydrogen fusion occurs on a grand scale in the Sun, producing the sunlight that powers nearly everything that happens on Earth, and uranium fission happens in great amounts in the bowels of the Earth, producing heat that shapes the planet over time. Now humans can take hydrogen and uranium and fuse and fissure it to create explosions that they desire, but they are playing around with something very big here, too big for what humanity is meant to handle, for what the Earth, in the balanced state it is supposed to maintain, can handle.

Speaking of which, environmental destruction basically happens because the environment is very fragile and we are playing around with it too much. But we must remember that only the way the natural environment is supposed to be is fragile. Nature itself, however, still has all the power. Humanity does not have control over it, which is why we are suffering from what we are doing to nature. If those American cities were nuked, the radiation emitted would not harm nature. Rather, nature would step in and take control as air currents in the atmosphere would pick up the radiation and transport it anywhere regardless of where people want it to go. That is how we must view the environmental situation.

Our true hope for the future, the future of the planet, the future of humanity, may thus lie in working with nature. That was the idea espoused by the UN on World Water Day a month ago and we absolutely must not limit our consideration of this idea to just certain days like that. We must make use of the processes of nature in a way that does not tamper with the same in order to continue inhabiting the planet in a healthy and sustainable manner. How we can do so, of course, is something we are just beginning to understand. We must now embark on that journey of understanding and we must put our scientific prowess to use doing so. We already are learning a great deal about nature and so the stage is set for us to learn how we can collaborate with the natural environments of Earth. There is so much we can gain from that as the forces of nature are so powerful and productive.

To give just one example of what can be done, many of our towers are built by concrete and steel, the production of which is environmentally damaging. But there is an innovative new idea to create buildings out of wood. That is an old idea used for making small buildings, but for the huge buildings of modern times, simply wooden planks will not do. Instead, a way has been invented of cutting wood into thin sheets and fusing them together to create structures of any size. Wood is very useful for construction because it is a biological building material, designed to perfection by nature. Made of a mass of lignin interspersed with cellulose fibers, it is very strong and lightweight. Of course, when we return to using wood as a common building material, we will have to cut down more trees and only worsen habitat degradation. But if we find a way to harvest timber and let more trees grow and harvest them again, we could find the solution to global warming. Trees store much of the world’s carbon in their woods and a tree left out in nature usually will eventually rot and release the carbon. But if the world makes its structures out of wood, we can suck out all the carbon dioxide we are releasing into the atmosphere and store it in our buildings. Wooden skyscrapers can be the carbon sink we are looking for.

It is time to put our minds to completely changing our relationship to nature and the way we treat it and use it. We advocate that Pakistan puts all its effort into doing this. This is very useful in disaster management. The country is very vulnerable to natural disasters but nature is not our enemy. Working with nature is the key to making it safe. It will also ensure our prosperity. The people of Pakistan are already putting much admirable effort into this. The government of KPK, for example, has led the Billion Tree Tsunami which has succeeded in its goal to improve forest cover in the northwest. This not only plays a small part in mitigating carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but also keeps soil erosion from the mountains in check, and benefits all of Pakistan.

But there is so much more that needs to be done. The struggle is only just beginning and we will all have to play our part in it. Environmental problems range from local to global, from one village suffering from the cutting of trees around it to the warming up of the entire planet by industrial activities as a whole. Pakistan suffers from environmental problems caused by activities both within the country and outside. Therefore, to solve these problems, we need to not only change what is going on in Pakistan, we also need to work with other countries.

Environmental issues are not just for governments, policy makers, and organizations. Decisions made by people in authority will not be enough to protect the environment. That is because the human impact on the Earth is made by all of us, every single person. The lifestyles and choices of each person in the world are responsible for the changes being made to the natural environment. Therefore, protecting the environment depends on everybody. All of us need to get involved in protecting nature by both changing our ways and looking for solutions.

PPLDM, of course, is all about mobilizing the people and bringing change through involving the grassroots level in order to make Pakistan safe from disasters. It is entirely possible to make the masses of Pakistan become involved in making themselves safe from disasters, to work for disaster risk reduction. They can also get involved in tackling the long-term, root cause behind much of the disaster risk they face, the degradation of the environment. It is up to the people of Pakistan to solve the nation’s internal environmental issues, right up to the most remote villagers, and what they need now is guidance.

Ultimate guidance, of course, will come from our scientific endeavor. In addition, guidance can also come from history. There is much we can learn from what has already been done. Right now, let us focus on a lesson already dealt with in the last article. Before 1914, there was more than a century in which the pace of civilization picked up rapidly and produced our modern world. It was a time when people’s foremost concern was what they were capable of and they did all they could to subdue the Earth. Conflict and tension was one result of this march of civilization. As a result, the years from 1914 onwards were of constant strife and struggle between the people of the world, spilling over at times into conflicts of epic proportions. This dark and dangerous age peacefully subsided by 1991 and now, relatively speaking, there is systemic peace. But we are now also in the era when another effect of the march of civilization is making itself evident, the buckling of the Earth’s environment under our weight. As such, another dark age is on the horizon and we have absolutely no idea where it will be leading us. We have no idea how we will cope.

Consider, for example, that in the nineteenth century, if a country suffered an oil shortage, it was likely because that country did not expand its oil industry enough. If a country suffered an oil shortage in the twentieth century, it was usually because there as a war going on or OPEC nations were angry at that country or some such situation. Now, in the twenty-first century, countries are likely to start facing the situation in which they will be short on oil more and more because the oil reserves in the Earth will begin to run out. If you are not producing enough oil yet, you can just dig more drilling wells. If you are faced with wars and embargoes, you can just make peace or restore good relations with your enemies (very easy to do but very hard to want to do, which is why wars are such a huge problem). But if all the oil in the world starts to run out, just what can you do?

That is the predicament we will face this century and beyond, not just for oil but for much else. While that future is hurtling our way, we are not even at the point where we are able to conceive of solutions.

Much of that could be due to the fact that such problems are largely new for humanity. The world has not had to face any similar situation before and this means that we are mostly bereft of turning to history for direct guidance on what to do. However, that is not entirely the case, because the circumstances that are now global have, through history, appeared in localized areas. Take oases in deserts, for example, like that of the Garamantes. Their story serves as a warning sign to us, though coming along with only a lesson of failure. Another example is that of remote islands.

Just as Earth is a largely closed habitat in the expanse of space, so islands are small, closed habitats for humans in the expanse of the ocean. Through the millenia, people inhabiting small islands have been kept isolated from the rest of the world, particularly the islands that dot the gigantic Pacific Ocean. The history of these islands offers a rich variety of stories of environments buckling under the weight of people. Some of these stories are of complete catastrophe, such as what happened on Easter Island, but many others are stories of success and sustainability. Pacific Islanders have a long heritage of managing to conserve and protect their natural resources and now that we are all in their shoes, their history is of great usefulness to us.

In addition, if you study the past carefully enough, you get an understanding of what is happening now even if it never happened before. Learning from history does not just involve looking at past situations and realizing it could happen again. It also involves really analyzing processes operating over time to understand where they could lead to next. For example, in 1938, they looked at Hitler’s aggressiveness and thought that World War 1 already happened and so if they go to war with Hitler, it would be like that war over again. They did not care to examine Germany’s post-war social conditions and the mindsets being fostered in the country in order to predict the kind of war that World War 2 was to become. If you know history, you can predict that something could occur because it already has, but if you understand history, you can predict that something could occur even if it has no precedent. It goes for natural history just as much for human history. Thus, as has been explained earlier, by studying the past processes of Earth and human societies inhabiting it, we can become more alert to where things are going in the future.

Let us also keep the pre-contact Pacific Islanders, and remote islanders everywhere, in mind always, for they are the precedent to what we are now doing to the entire world as we turn all of it into one single island for us.

It seems that in addition to not looking back at bygone eras, we are still in the mindset that people had in bygone eras, the aforementioned ages of expanding oil industries and oil embargoes, when all we could think about was our relations with other people and with what we create and what we do. We have yet to be concerned enough about the natural environment around us. On TV, all we hear most of the time is the state of the economy and international relations and (in Pakistan) Nawaz Sharif being kicked out by the Supreme Court. News about the state of the environment appears only as a sideshow. Yet what is going on with Nawaz Sharif is not important in the long-term.

Earth Day serves as a yearly reminder of that. But we need to be reminded every day. This piece of writing is meant to instill in the readers a concern for the Earth. It is a long road ahead for Pakistan and the world, for every single one of us. Humanity really is a capable force and so, in the end, we may really hold the key to making sure the planet we live in is healthy. In order for it to be that way, we must begin now and we must try everything we can to help the Earth. We are only living for now, which is wrong. We need to live in a way that allows humanity to have a future. If we must think in personal terms, lets say we must ensure a future for our children and grandchildren and their grandchildren, so on. If there is anything those photos taken aboard the spaceships have taught us, it is that we have only one planet to live on. There is nowhere else to go. It is our oasis in the universe and letting it go to ruin is not an option for us.

Author’s bio:

Shahzeb Khan is an environmental activist and journalist whose articles have been published in Daily Times, Express Tribune, and Eurasia Review. His work was commended by former US president Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship.

Pakistan’s Water Future

Water is the foundation of every nation in the world. Pakistan’s relationship with water, however, is rather unique. Indus River is the backbone around which the nation revolves and its surrounding area, the Indus Basin, is home to almost all of Pakistan’s population. The entire territory of Pakistan has a very arid climate, with only high-altitude areas being naturally well-irrigated. Most of Pakistan’s water, thus, comes from the rivers that flow down from these mountains, chiefly the Indus and its tributaries. These are oases of water moving through parched lands. In order for civilization to exist in Pakistan’s territories, people have had to spread those huge amounts of water out over a wider area. As a result, the world’s largest irrigation system exists in Pakistan’s Indus Basin.

Rainfall does occur in great amounts over the Indus Basin. However, most of it is for a short period in the summer monsoon season, from June to September. This is a time of the year when the air, which in the rest of the year produces an arid climate by flowing from Pakistan towards the ocean, reverses its course and cloud-bearing winds from the Indian Ocean blanket Pakistan. These clouds pour down an enormous amount of water over Pakistan, whether over the mountains of the northern areas and northwest, the Punjab Basin, or occasionally Sindh. Thus, Pakistan overflows with an abundance of water, often too much to use at once. This all quickly ends, however, and in the meantime, much of the rainwater flows into the Indus. When there are no rains, people can tap into groundwater, which is water from the rains that collects deep underground where the soil lies on top of Earth’s firm surface of solid rock. Groundwater reserves in most of Punjab are huge but in other places, these are not as much because rainwater comes too fast to be absorbed into the ground easily.

The people of the Indus Basin have to find ways to use the rain water as best as they can before the monsoon ends,  followed by a nine-month drought of sorts. Thus, there are reservoirs to store large amounts of water and there are canals, known as non-perennial canals (canals filled all year round are perennial canals) that fill up in times of rain. There are inundation canals that fill up in times of flooding. There are many embankments, such as dams, barrages, and levees which block the flow of water, allowing water to stay where needed. All in all, Pakistan has one of the biggest water management systems in the world.

The Indus Basin is the bulk of the nation but makes up only half of the territory. The rest of Pakistan is basically the fringes of the nation. These areas are sparsely populated and little-developed and often are remote and inaccessible. In the flat areas and even some of the mountainous terrain, very few rivers run through and the soil is very arid. Thus, the main source of water for the people is precipitation, which scarcely comes most of the time. It is during the summer monsoon that most of the rain comes, except in the very outliers of the nation, western Balochistan, FATA, Gilgit-Baltistan, and northern Khyber-Paktunkwha. Outside of the summer monsoon, precipitation comes largely from Western Disturbances, which deliver rain and snow in the winter in large amounts for short periods. With rainwater and meltwater coming in large amounts for short periods of time, the local people have had to develop their own various methods of water management to make do with such a barren environment, such as earthen structures that slow the flow of flowing water so that it is absorbed into the ground and wells.

So in most other countries, most of the water that people need is made available to them naturally. But Pakistan is a country where people have had to get much of the water for themselves. We are a nation that needs to manage water to a particularly high degree, hence having one of the world’s biggest water management systems. This is why World Water Day has enormous significance for us.

The entire water situation in Pakistan that has just been explained is responsible for Pakistan being among the countries facing the greatest water challenges. Problems surrounding freshwater in Pakistan are numerous and severe. There are issues with how much water is available to Pakistanis, what the quality of the water being used is, and what effects flooding and erosion have on land.

As civilization continues its rapid pace of development in the modern era, great changes are being made to the natural environment, with bad consequences for people, and the hydrosphere, the realm of nature consisting of water, is among its most severely affected components. Freshwater in Pakistan is being ravaged by all sorts of human factors both within and without Pakistan. Global climate change will make the monsoon more erratic and melt the snow and glaciers that supply Pakistan with most of its water. Deforestation, especially what is going on in the mountains where the rivers come from, will change the flow of water in the environment and increase erosion. Pollution will increase as development will cause Pakistan’s water supplies to be contaminated. Finally, Pakistan’s high population growth will push water supplies to their limit as more people use more of what water there is and the amount of freshwater in the world is not going to increase along with us.

World Water Day should be a reminder to us of how important water management is to Pakistan as a nation. Water, being the basis (along with other aspects of nature such as soil) of civilization is vital to the existence and well-being of Pakistan. Every Pakistan Day, we are reminded of the importance of our nation and take inspiration in what our nation is capable of being. We get reminded of what is important to Pakistan. But much of what really is important, we ignore. We therefore need to observe World Water Day more closely. In fact, World Water Day is March 22, and Pakistan day is March 23. The commemorations of this two-day period should be merged. On March 22, we Pakistanis should look at the water situation in Pakistan and focus on ways to fix our water challenges and continue to do that the next day, Pakistan Day, which should be a day when, at the same time we look back at the past, we look at where our nation should go from here and focus on ways to make our nation better.

The coming into being of Pakistan, a process which began on March 23, 1940, is of great meaning. We also need to look at where Pakistan is now. Then we look at where Pakistan will be going, which depends on where we take it.

Pakistan cannot be a viable nation unless politicians, policymakers, and citizens pay due attention to the nation’s water. It really underlines all other issues. In our nation’s seventieth year of existence, we need to become more cognizant of what made the existence of our nation possible historically. People were able to bring civilization to this inhospitable land by tapping the otherwise inaccessible sources of water here. This is how things have always been since then but now, things are not going to be the same for Pakistan any longer. We are basically heading into one huge water crisis, a looming disaster for our existence if you will, and Pakistan will find its very survival in jeopardy unless we find ways to stop what is happening, or adapt to it.

The world has continued developing at a breakneck speed and this means that the capacity of the planet to sustain humanity is being pushed to the brink, with earth’s water resources being particularly vulnerable.

In commemorating Pakistan’s history, we usually look at the history that began after August 14, 1947 or even 23 March, 1940. But it is important also that we also look at the entire history of the land that constitutes Pakistan. That provides us largely with a history of water management. Proper study of this past can guide us significantly.

Pakistan’s Indus Basin was one of the great cradles of civilization. Here, four thousand years ago, there developed what is known as the Indus Valley Civilization or Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. It was the foundation of civilization in South Asia. The people of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa are not our ethnic and cultural ancestors very much. The civilization collapsed when people from the west moved into the Indus region and displaced them, creating a new civilization which developed over the millennia and spread across the Indian Subcontinent. From the west, invaders always came to create a new civilization in what is now Pakistan and take it eastwards. Pakistan’s true roots began when Islam spread into South Asia and became the main religion across the northwest of the Subcontinent. This civilization reached its height with the Mughal Empire, which began in the Indus region and ultimately extended over almost all of the Subcontinent. The Mughals and the mighty empire they created can be said to be the predecessor to our nation. The empire lasted for centuries but slowly fell prey to the inevitable tide of European economic and military expansion across the globe and became a British colony, the most important colony of the biggest empire in the world. Here, fittingly, there sprang the world’s biggest independence movement which finally attained its goal in 1947. Thanks to the work of our founder, Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah, the colony split into two nations, of which Pakistan, a homeland for the Muslims of India, gained independence a day before the other.

Behind all of this rich history lies water. How people learned to deal with this one most important resource determined all else that happened in the history of this land. The Indus Valley civilization is particularly noteworthy as it was the pioneer in water management in the Indus Basin. Building an irrigation system in the vicinity of rivers, and based upon flood management, their achievements were many and their experience may have much to teach Pakistan now. Indus irrigation, however, did not take off until the expansion of Muslims into the region, who spread a network of inundation canals as they expanded their rule. The Mughals took this indigenous water management to its height, building more inundation canals. When the British sailed from faraway Europe and took things over, everything changed. They brought an absolute revolution in the management of the Indus Basin, developing water systems to a great degree and instigating many new projects. But all of this was for their benefit and not for that of the locals, so things did not really improve for the land of Pakistan. Indeed, drought and famine became greater hazards than before.

After Pakistan’s independence, we have been accelerating this development. We now have the opportunity to take the know-how and the capability that Western civilization brought to the entire world and use it for the benefit of all Pakistanis. But we must also look back to how things were done in our ancient past, as they may benefit us as well.

The UN assigns a certain theme to every World Water Day. Examples include Water and Disasters (2004), Coping with Water Scarcity (2007), and Why Waste Water? (2017). Every World Water Day, Pakistan should focus on each theme and how it applies to the country. Then, for the whole year afterwards, the nation should work on the issues dealt with by that theme and then switch its focus by the next 22 March to what theme that World Water Day has.

The theme for World Water Day 2018 is Nature for Water. It is all about the idea of working with and using nature in water management. Examples applicable to Pakistan include planting forests to prevent flooding and erosion and restoring wetlands to reduce water pollution. Our freshwater supplies are a part of nature and so it is important to utilize the workings of nature and to behave in a way that accommodates and sustains nature. It could even be the ultimate solution to our water challenges. Therefore, in the wake of this year’s World Water Day, it is time for Pakistan to turn its attention towards natural solutions.

In fact, working and living in harmony with nature may be the path that Pakistan needs to take to ensure its future and to find solutions for all the challenges that lie ahead. For too long, the world has been exploiting nature in a haphazard way, trying to alter nature to fit in with the desires of people. It is becoming apparent more and more that this is not working any longer or is only providing short-term benefits and that we are in fact headed towards environmental catastrophe worldwide. In order to sustain our future, we must sustain the natural environment we live in. Change will also occur, as it is an inevitable part of the world we live in now, but it must be done in a way that maintains the systems that have been operating in nature since time began and carefully using what is there in nature for new things. Now that Pakistan has turned seventy, it is time that we turn our attention towards this path for our future and do all we can to tread it.

When it comes to disaster management, harmony with nature is the best strategy for dealing with natural disasters. A natural disaster simply happens because a natural process, upon interacting with human society, causes great harm to people. The natural process itself is simply a part of nature and is not bad. What we need is to learn how to live alongside the workings of nature without being harmed by them. It may seem a compelling idea to mitigate natural hazards by altering the natural processes themselves, but it often backfires or has drawbacks.

For instance, flood control measures such as building levees around rivers disrupt the buildup of floodplains, decreasing the fertility of the soil and even worsening any flood that manages to break through the levees by preventing floodwaters from depositing sediment that makes the floodplains higher and therefore less likely to be inundated. For a hypothetical scenario, in America, which is famed for its tendency to try to control nature, people have often suggested destroying hazardous hurricanes by detonating hydrogen bombs in them before they make landfall. However, it will not work as even the biggest nukes created by humans are very weak compared to the power of a hurricane and the hurricane will then just become radioactive. Even if people somehow had the capability to get rid of hurricanes, hurricanes transport huge amounts of heat from the tropics towards the higher latitudes. If they were to be stopped, tropical regions would become too hot for people to live there and northern latitudes would become much colder.

Playing around with nature also is making much of the world’s natural hazards much worse. Through our modern activities, we are altering the air, water, and land to a great extent and this is causing natural processes to change to a high degree. The cutting down of trees and the removal of vegetation, deforestation, increasing erosion such as landslides and water erosion which makes floods worse. Trying to fight every single fire that breaks out in a forest causes flammable plant matter to build up, so that the occasional fire that escapes extinguishing can spread through the whole forest. Improper management of farmland has often contributed to drought. The biggest human impact of all is global warming, the warming of the atmosphere by our pumping of various gases into the air. Global warming is postulated to make a huge number of natural hazards more severe, such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, heatwaves (obviously), landslides, epidemics, wildfires, blizzards, and earthquakes. The last two may seem surprising but it goes to show that nature works in very complex ways and that is why any change we make to her can have great consequences out of our control.

That is the crux of the matter. We may have more control over the planet but it makes us cause more things to happen which are out of our control. That is the price we have often paid for shaping nature to our liking and we are now clearly heading into a future where the price is too high to bear. It all comes down to what are the fundamentals of the relationship between humanity and nature. Nature is all that which exists by itself and operates by itself without being created or run by people and we humans exist within nature and everything we need is derived from nature.

A common philosophy that many people followed through history, especially in the West, was the view of nature as an essentially hostile and unreliable force. The thinking goes that the natural world we live in abides by its own whims and not ours at all. It therefore keeps us in danger by treading on us whenever it wants and does not readily provide us with all that is of benefit to us. Whether it is the other living things we inhabit  the environment with, with which we are in endless strife and struggle, or the environment itself, which exists in complete indifference to us, we live in a tough world, a world of storms and starvation, in which we had to look to ourselves to survive. And in order for humanity to thrive and to prosper, to make the conditions of our life better, we have to alter the world, to basically take it apart and reassemble it to create all that is good for us.

To some extent, this is true. But it is not the whole picture. The world may not be made to accommodate us, but we are made to accommodate the world. We are adapted to the natural conditions. Furthermore, nature is a very powerful force. The way it is already is a world which we can live in and while humanity is becoming increasingly a powerful force, nature is still way above us. It will respond to our influence the way it wants and will never be fully tamed by us. Nature is powerful and the natural environment, which is to say the balance that nature maintains for our benefit, is at the same time fragile. Our world is vast and dynamic and we people are an entity wielding little power in the face of it. It is best that we get the world to help us and help it at the same time, rather than making futile attempts to subdue it. It is what will take us far.

Nature is divided into two basic kinds, the abiotic and the biotic. The abiotic is what exists and operates by random processes. It has no purpose of its own except to abide by physical laws and things are the way they are. It is the earth, the water, and the air. It is what makes up the bulk of the world. The biotic, which exists within the context of the abiotic, is the living world, all the living things which exist for the purpose of providing for and expanding their existence, which actively work towards that end.

The abiotic contains immense power. It is basically almost everything that there is and so its forms and its forces both are largely immune to being shaped by us how we want and can be of immense use to us if we only learn how to harness them properly. Though they do not exist for any particular purpose, the flow of a river is a monumental force and a mountain is a monumental form and both can benefit us greatly if we accommodate ourselves to them.

The biotic, though being of a lesser scale, has shaped the abiotic to an enormous degree with the result of making the world habitable for living beings like humans. The sum of other living things also is a massive realm compared to what people have created and living things are shaped to perfection in all that they can do. You can understand that if you compare the very hands that people have, which is part of the living world, with what those hands have created. The hands have a finesse that is lacked by all that is artificial. The living world offers up an endless variety of other incredibly marvelous forms which are made to be as capable as possible and be adapted to live with the natural conditions of the world. Compare a bird with a plane, a whale with a ship, and a tree with a tower. The plane, the ship, and the tower are much mightier by the plain outlook. But by examining carefully, you can see that there is so much that the bird, the whale, and the tree have which our artificial creations lack, much that ultimately will make them win out in terms of what is sustainable for the world.

When it comes to disasters, there are countless ways nature can lessen hazardous events or protect us from them. One of the main aspects of nature which can keep us safe is vegetation. Plants, from the moss that carpets dirt to trees that tower above us high into the air, are the building blocks of most environments and create a suitable space for people to live in. Plant roots hold soil firmly in place, thus preventing landslides, and landslides do not travel far when tree are in the way. Plants absorb great amounts of water and so keep flooding down. Mangrove forests and coastal wetlands block storm surges and tsunamis. Trees protect us from heatwaves by providing us with shade and cooling the air through transpiration.

Blind abiotic processes also protect us in many ways. Consider that the constant action of waves at coastlines build up sand dunes which protect us from the huge, dangerous waves which strike whenever a hurricane is passing over or an earthquake rumbles in the ocean. Then there is the other erosion process, already mentioned, in which floods suppress the capacity of future floods by depositing sediment that raises floodplains.

Some of the biggest hazards that afflict humanity come from tiny animals such as the mosquitoes that transmit deadly diseases causing epidemics and the locusts that devour vast tracts of grain crops causing famines. While we try to get rid of such dangerous critters by pouring chemicals that we create into the environment to kill them, which often cause great environmental harm, we are better off turning to the natural forces that keep their populations down, provided we learn how we can harness them properly, other animals. There are everywhere predators such as birds, frogs, spiders, dragonflies, and bats which are made for going after insects and killing as many of them as possible, which works better than creating some chemicals with indiscriminate effects and randomly pouring them into the environment, where we do not know where they will go. By carefully controlling ecological conditions, we can make wild predators eat more of the pestilent insects so they are mostly wiped out.

By turning to nature, we can not only stay safe from such calamities and many others, we can improve things generally for our nation. That is important for ensuring that Pakistan has a viable future and that we avoid the total calamity we are certainly headed for. Today is Earth Day, 21 April. 2018. Earth Day is a day set aside to commemorate the fact that our existence and our well-being depends on the state of our Earth. It is a perfect time that the national discourse of Pakistan turns towards cooperation with nature. The best way for the Earth to continue sustaining us is for us to sustain it and let it be the way it is.

Now that our nation is seventy years old, this is the direction we must take. Our celebration of seventy years of Pakistan is extensive and prolonged but along with it must come a discourse regarding what we must do for our nation from now on and we must start doing it. We primarily must recognize that Pakistan’s past is different from what the future will be.

Seventy years of our nation’s history has primarily been about political and social issues. An entire era, 1914 to 1991, was continuously a time of massive upheaval all across the world, with people going through events such as World War 1, World War 2, decolonization, and the Cold War. It was in this global environment that Pakistan came into being and in which it spent its first few decades. It was an era where the pressing concern of people and nations across the world was their relationship with other people and nations. Pakistan was no exception, forming because of opposition to British rule and concern over Hindu-Muslim relations and then going through wars with India and the breakaway of East Pakistan, as well as being caught up in the Cold War.

After 1991, everything calmed down and we since then have lived in a world of tranquility. For Pakistan, it can be seen in the limited nature of our final war with India in 1999 (although Pakistan is unfortunately now suffering from one of the greatest upheavals that is occurring in today’s world, events related to the War on Terror). However, due to the rapid development of civilization, in today’s world, people and nations everywhere have a new pressing concern, their relationship with the air, the water, the earth, and all other living things inhabiting the planet with us. This relationship is what is now hitting rock bottom and that is what the future of the world, including Pakistan, is going to be like from now on.

Throughout its seventy years of existence, Pakistan has made it through so much from Partition to the insurgency in the northwest. Now, it is time the nation realizes what it faces from here on, a completely different kind of problem, a severe problem, which will soon became of an existential magnitude. Because the situation is unlike what humanity has had to face before, to make it through our inevitable future and to handle the environmental crises, we need to gain knowledge. We need to study the problems and we need to think up of solutions. We need to find out everything we can about the world we are heading into. Plus, all of us must play our part in handling the problem. Every Pakistani needs to get involved and we need to work closely with all other nations.

Pakistan has survived the upheavals of the past and it is vital that we spring into action and confront the threats to our survival that lie ahead. That is something we must start doing right now.

Author’s bio:

Shahzeb Khan is a journalist and environmental activist. His work has been commended by Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship.  He is the director of Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management. He can be reached at shahzebkhansaheb@gmail.com

 

 

Pakistan Day: Our Need for National Disaster Resilience

“My message to all of you is of hope, courage, and confidence. Let us mobilize all our resources in a systematic and organized way and tackle the grave issues that confront us with grim determination and discipline worthy of a great nation.”

Quaid-i-Azam

 

Today, our nation celebrates Pakistan Day. It is the anniversary of the Lahore Resolution of 23 March, 1940, wherein members of the All-India Muslim League gathered together and issued the declaration that when India is granted independence from the British, areas of the territory which have a Muslim-majority population should be under separate administration from the rest of India, to prevent the marginalization of Muslims by the Hindu majority. Thus, the notion of Pakistan was formally adopted and the movement for Pakistan started. Seven years later,  Pakistan was born on August 14, 1947.

August 14 is thus designated as Independence Day while 23 March is reserved for officially celebrating Pakistan itself.

These dates commemorate a very special time in history. European colonial empires used to rule most of the world. After World War 2, their unraveling began to proceed. The first colony to gain independence was the British Raj, which was the most important colony of the biggest empire in the world and where there already was a massive independence movement. Due to the duel and determined struggle for freedom, the Raj split into two countries, Pakistan and India. Independence of other colonies continued until decolonization was complete all over the world decades later. The world being fully divided into independent nation states is therefore a process that began with the Subcontinent. What is more, Pakistan got independence the day before India. Therefore, our nation holds the distinct honor of being the very first country to emerge in the wave of independence that swept the world clean of imperialism.

We have been on a journey of seventy years as an independent nation-state and it is time for us to push further to make our nation greater, for which our unique heritage can be a motivation. We were already a role model for the world in being first to gain independence and in governing ourselves, and we can be even more than that by becoming a role model in disaster risk reduction.

Pakistan is particularly vulnerable to hazards. Since time immemorial, our land has been regularly wracked by disasters and they are a particularly high level concern for Pakistan nowadays.

Our country is blessed with a large and dynamic variety of natural environments, from the blue waters of the Arabian Sea to the towering mountains of the Karakorum and the Himalayas. This, however, comes at the cost of putting us at risk of natural disasters, so much so that Pakistan is a world hotspot for natural hazards. Since its formation, our country has seen tremendous progress in the form of rapid development and population growth. Infrastructure, industry, and agriculture have expanded considerably. But much of this has been done without careful planning.

If Pakistan is to make something greater of itself and become a better country for its citizens to live in, it is vital we work to make our nation and our people safe from disasters. It will be a considerable task requiring the application of all aspects of the nation. It is the vital responsibility of the nation’s authorities, the government, military, police, civil servants, and emergency services, to work to ensure this. But more than others, it is important for ordinary Pakistanis to help other Pakistanis who are suffering or at risk. The people of Pakistan must gain the capacity to cope with disasters and be able to protect themselves.

Our nation’s seventieth year should be the time for us to start moving towards building greater protection from hazards. Pakistan has an enormous amount of potential that can be harnessed to achieve the goal.

Disasters are matters of urgency.  People are always most ready to do their best when it comes to emergencies, to handling threats to themselves. A Pakistan equipped with disaster management capability can be strong enough to manage all of its problems. It can thrive and prosper.

Just as Pakistan led the way to freedom within the developing world, it has the potential to lead in management of climate change induced natural disasters. It can become the role model for the world, especially for other developing and emerging countries, in disaster management.

77 years ago, our forebears began the fight to throw off the shackles of foreign rule and 70 years ago, we finally won the struggle for a free Pakistan. Now, it is time to begin the fight to vanquish the threat of disasters that we all live under and win the struggle for a secure and prosperous Pakistan.