Need to Redefine Disaster Management in Pakistan

Pakistan, a country in the west of Asia, is the world’s sixth most populous nation, with 180 million people. It is divided into four provinces, Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Paktunkwha (KPK), and Balochistan, and four territories, Islamabad Capital Territory, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir, and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The country of Pakistan is typically placed in South Asia but in terms of its divisions, we can say that Punjab, Sindh, Islamabad, Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan are in South Asia and Khyber-Paktunkwha, Balochistan, and FATA are in West Asia. Pakistan is a developing country but it has a strong military and a promising economy. The country has recently turned 70 years old on August 14, 2017. It has the honor of being the very first country to gain independence in the wave of decolonization after World War 2 that ended imperialism all across the world.

Along with this freedom, though, comes a vast multitude of problems that afflicts countries across the world, particularly the developing countries. Pakistan has had more than its share of problems throughout its history and still does. A special category of problems is known as disaster, which are essentially situations in which severe problems are concentrated into single events. The word “disaster” has a lot of meanings, but by the definition concerned here, a disaster is any event in which very bad things happen to a large number of people.
In addition to the ordinary issues that the nation has to deal with on a persistent basis, the people of Pakistan face the risk of numerous kinds of disasters and suffer from their occurrence.

The probability that a disaster will happen is known as risk. A situation that can create disaster, the source of a disaster, is known as a hazard. The word can have a broad meaning. It can refer to a hazardous event or it can refer to the probability of such occurring. When we say that a certain hazard exists in a nation, it means that something there can happen that could lead to disaster. That kind of disaster may occur regularly or it may not have ever occurred before but could still happen. We got to distinguish disasters, the calamity itself that befalls people, from the events that cause them. In fact, when it comes to the basic terminology of the subject we are dealing with, the three words we need to understand are risk, crisis, and disaster. A risk is the ever-present danger of a disaster occurring. A crisis is when an event that could turn into a disaster, a hazardous event, occurs and puts people at imminent risk. A disaster is when people are afflicted by what they were in danger from.

The disasters that have been afflicting Pakistan are severe and numerous and the risks Pakistan faces are high. Pakistan is in fact one of the world’s most disaster- prone countries. Large scale natural disasters happen frequently and man-made disasters are not rare either, though they usually are not on a large scale because of Pakistan’s poorly developed infrastructure. The same societal conditions also play a big factor in the severity of natural disasters. Pakistan’s biggest threats are earthquakes, floods, droughts, famines, epidemics, and cyclones. Other significant hazards are tsunamis, wildfires, urban fires, nuclear plant meltdowns, and landslides. Disasters that occasionally occur, or are likely to occur in Pakistan and harm a significant number of people include heat waves, avalanches, blizzards, dust storms, windstorms, and various kinds of industrial accidents.

An overview of the hazard assessment in Pakistan makes it clear how prone to disasters the nation is and how nearly all Pakistanis, which currently number 190 million people living in a relatively small country, most of them densely packed in smaller areas still, live under great risk. Almost the entire risk consists of natural hazards. These are natural events that have the potential to create disaster for human societies. They are indeed the main cause of disaster all over the world but Pakistan is one of the countries most at risk of natural disasters.

Nature is very active in the territory that graces Pakistan, that is home to such a large population. Such a combination is extremely dangerous, as we shall see here. Across the western side of Pakistan lies the Chaman Fault, which is highly seismically active. From its northern end, it meets with a very complex system of faults in the north of Pakistan and runs down through Khyber-Paktunkwha and then Balochistan, where it turns east toward Sindh and enters the Arabian Sea at the coast there. Across the east side of Pakistan runs the Indus River, which begins, flow-wise, in Azad Kashmir and runs through the western side of Punjab. That province is crisscrossed with a network of large rivers that join the Indus from the east. Smaller rivers from the mountains of the west of Pakistan also flow into the Indus. The greatly enlarged Indus proceeds to run down the middle of Sindh until it enters the ocean. The Indus River regularly overflows and is prone to seeing massive floods, mostly during the summer monsoon.

As a result of this arrangement, most of Pakistan is vulnerable to the world’s two largest natural hazards, earthquakes and floods. The tectonic faults of Pakistan run mostly through areas that are sparsely populated but also isolated, so that the people who are affected by earthquakes, however few in number, suffer badly as it is difficult to get help to them. The rivers run through the most densely inhabited areas of Pakistan so that large proportions of the population of Pakistan tend to be affected by flooding. Flooding tends to make movement over the ground (and often the air as bad weather that causes flooding can also be present with the flooding) impossible, so it is also difficult to get help to flood victims.

Another dichotomy in Pakistan is that the nation is vulnerable to either flooding or drought. Pakistan’s hydrological situation is unusual. The entire country is very arid. Sufficient rainfall to sustain human life comes only during the three months of the summer monsoon (July to September) and also in lesser extent during Winter Disturbances. Only the mountainous areas of Pakistan are kept moist all the time as their altitude allows them to absorb the maximum amount of moisture from the sky. The only other source of water for the nation is the rivers that flow through Pakistan’s territory, an uneven water supply that has only been partially mitigated through millennia of irrigation construction. So Pakistan receives a lot of water at some times and little water at other times and some parts of it have a lot of water and other parts little water. This makes both flooding and drought huge and ever-present hazards. Among other things, this makes famine a major hazard as both drought and flooding tend to cause famine. Due to the precarious base of Pakistan’s agriculture, the food security of the nation is persistently low.

The coast of Pakistan, home to millions of people who almost all are in the bustling megacity of Karachi, has all the hazards that can come with living near the ocean. There is a major subduction fault, the Makran Trench, which is adjacent to the coast. It is in constant danger of rupturing, which could cause a major tsunami, which would severely affect the immediate coastal areas, and an earthquake, which could cause damage further inland. The tsunami danger is compounded by the fact that the seabed off the coast of Pakistan is covered in great depths of loose sediment which could easily slide. They are capable of generating huge tsunamis. Moving from the terrain under the ocean to the sky above, the Arabian Sea has a moderate propensity for cyclone formation. Though cyclones there tend not to be large, the Sea’s funnel shape makes storm surges bigger when they reach Pakistan. The Indus Delta, which is sparsely populated, is highly vulnerable to storm surges and tsunamis because of its low elevation and its network of rivers.

The vast mountainous regions across Pakistan, especially the northern part of the country covered by the massive Hindu Kush-Karakorum-Himalayan mountain ranges, are a world-class disaster hotspot. The mountains, formed by the high-force collision of two tectonic plates, are underlain by a vast system of seismically extremely active fault lines. The monsoon weather systems that come from the east and the disturbances that come from the west often collide with the mountains. When they do so, most of their moisture falls down as rain all at once, creating severe risk for floods which have increased in recent years as the monsoon fronts have shifted their paths towards the mountains more. The floods which occur in mountainous areas are extremely destructive as water moves at great speeds. Along with this comes various gravity related hazards common to mountains. Landslides, rockslides, mudslides, and avalanches happen frequently. Another danger is flooding caused by a slide damming a river. The biggest hazard may be outburst floods caused by the collapse of natural dams, especially glaciers. All these hazards are greatly enabled by the high seismic and hydrological activity. Getting aid to people affected by disasters in the mountainous areas is often a massive difficulty, especially when the disasters in question destroy or block transportation routes.

All of these natural hazards are major problems confronting Pakistan. But what determines how severe the natural hazards are is not just the extent and nature of the natural processes and conditions that produce them or how many people are in their path but also the state of the human societies exposed to the hazards, the social, political, economic, and material conditions in Pakistan.

This comes in three main forms. First is that the impact of the hazardous natural event could be worsened in many ways by artificial circumstances. Basically, the natural process can interact with the society people surround themselves with to harm these people even more than if the people were just standing in a wilderness. In a natural disaster, the infrastructure and materials all around us can become hazards themselves or natural forces can be amplified. Common examples are buildings collapsing in an earthquake and floodwaters in a city not being drained quickly because the ground is covered in concrete and tarmac. Earthquakes, in fact, get their hazardousness almost entirely from human infrastructure, unless they cause another natural event like landslides. The hazard of seismic activity, basically, is not typically natural.

Secondly, there is how resistant human society and infrastructure are to the impact of a natural force based upon what conditions they are in. They could be structured in such a way that they are strong in the face of a natural hazard or they could be weak and give way easily. For example, buildings can provide people refuge from floodwaters but those that are small or weak enough can fall down due to the force of moving water. If infrastructure systems such as water supply and transportation are damaged by a natural hazard event, people can suffer even more and the damage is more likely to occur if the systems are poorly developed or poorly maintained.
Thirdly, there is how capable the affected society is in responding to the outbreak of disaster, in dealing with it. Usually, the poorer a society is, the less is its capacity to cope. People have fewer means. They have less to do anything with, such as moving or obtaining resources, and have enough only to get by with normal circumstances. They are less able to put enough extra effort into dealing with extra problems in a disaster.

The measure of how vulnerable people are to the occurrence of a natural disaster based upon the circumstances that they are living in is known as social vulnerability. As a rule, these circumstances are only of the society they are living in and exclude natural conditions which influence the impact of a natural hazardous event, such as how steep is the angle of a coastline struck by a tropical cyclone.

The people of Pakistan are highly vulnerable to the various natural hazards that exist in the nation. Pakistan is a developing country. That means that it is not a wealthy country. Ranking among the countries of the world and their development, Pakistan comes somewhere in the middle. But the nation does have quite a lot of power. For example, it developed nuclear weapons and it has a very large military. On the other hand, there is also a lot of corruption in the nation, impeding its ability to prepare for natural disasters and even to respond to them, as the rotten in authority might continue with their dirty business when an emergency breaks out. Poverty is widespread across the nation. Infrastructure everywhere tends to be poorly developed and poorly maintained. Public institutions are not very strong.

The disaster risks outlined are thus extreme and are among the main problems confronting Pakistan. It is vitally important the nation deals with them. However, coping is something Pakistan is not very good at doing yet. Protecting people from disasters is a broad field known as disaster risk management. The capacity for disaster management in Pakistan is poorly developed, both in lessening the vulnerability of people to hazards and in dealing with disasters that occur. Because of this, the people of Pakistan have suffered badly from disasters. We are not dealing with our risk factor correctly. This could be due to absence of expertise, corruption and ill management of resources.

Pakistan must consider hazards and disasters as among its biggest issues and disaster risk management should be among the nation’s top priorities. In fact, it should be the top priority. Once Pakistan and its people have gained the capability of protecting themselves from and mitigating disasters, there will be a huge improvement in the well-being of Pakistanis. The pathway to sustainable empowerment of the nation-state lies here.


Changing Monsoon Pattern and Flood Preparation in Pakistan

The following article was submitted for publication on November 13, 2017 to Herald Pakistan. It was part of PPLDM’s effort to sensitize the government of Pakistan. Herald declined the piece with the message that it would have published it if it was submitted in September. Fortunately, the government of Pakistan was moved. It held a seminar on January 12, 2018, (within two months of PPLDM’s effort), to address the matter of changing pattern of monsoon in 2017.

People led disaster management seems to work!

The following piece is authored by Shahzeb Khan, co-founder and director at PPLDM. Khan is an avid advocate for climate change policy. Shahzeb Khan is also an environment activist. He is the author of the upcoming book titled ‘Pakistan’s Multi-Hazard Risk Analysis.’ The book is aimed at sensitizing Pakistan’s people to the natural disaster risks they face and motivating them to think about disaster management innovatively.

Flooding is a frequent occurrence and a major hazard in Pakistan. Lately, the hazard has become much greater. Pakistan was used to a sort of regularity in floods caused by summer monsoon, whereby floods occurred once every few years and were never very big. Eight years ago, a new phase in Pakistan’s monsoon climate set in. It is a tremendous onset, rapid and without any precedent.

In July 2010, monsoon rains gained in strength rapidly through the month. They soon became much heavier than normal, until, at the end of July, they became the heaviest rainfall on record in Pakistan. The downpour, which occurred mostly in Pakistan’s mountainous northwest, caused massive flash floods that devastated the region.  The floods moved down the mountains towards the Indus River at the same time the heavy rainfall began over Punjab as well. By August, half a million people were displaced. The rainfall grew heavier as the month progressed while the entire Indus swelled and flooded vast areas of Pakistan until, in late August, one-fifth of the country was flooded. By late September, floodwaters began to recede, a process that was completed not before March 2011. 20 million people were affected by this massive disaster. The official death toll (always conservative) is 1,800.

This flood was the biggest ever in Pakistan’s recorded history. The disaster was truly unprecedented in many ways. Many people suggested it was the result of climate change. But the more pressing question at the time was whether it was a one-time aberration or the start of a change in Pakistan’s monsoon.

The answer began to painfully unravel itself the next year, in 2011. At first, monsoon rainfall was lower than normal, but it started to be higher in mid-August and quickly led to flooding. This time, rainfall was concentrated in the south of Pakistan, impacting mostly Sindh. By September, the flooding increased until it reached an enormous extent, not as big as last year’s but still a giant among floods in Pakistan. Reportedly, more than nine million people were affected and around 520 were killed.

The next year, the monsoon was calm until the beginning of September, when a monsoon front entered the country between the north and south. It rained throughout September, causing severe floods, that affected northern Sindh, southern Punjab, and eastern Balochistan. Around 4.8 million people were affected by the 2012 floods and 571 were killed. Floods in Sindh did not recede until March 2013.

That year, a spell of flooding began at the end of July and lasted till the middle of August, affecting wide areas of Pakistan, especially Punjab and Sindh. It is estimated that 1.5 million were affected and 234 people died in the floods of 2013.

In September 2014, severe rainfall in the north of the Indian Subcontinent caused massive flooding in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as Jammu and Kashmir. Floodwaters moved through the rivers of Indian Punjab and entered into Pakistani Punjab, causing severe flooding in the northern part of the Indus River System. The floods lasted until September 26. 376 people died in Pakistan and more than two and a half million were affected.

In July and August 2015, floods occurred which were not as severe as preceding years but were almost as widespread as the 2010 deluge, affecting northern Sindh, western Punjab, eastern Balochistan, and most of Khyber-Paktunkwha, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir. Chitral was the worst affected area. Across Pakistan, more than one and a half million people were affected and more than two hundred died.

In 2016, for the first time in six years, Pakistan was spared severe flooding. The country still did not escape tragedy, though. According to authorities, 153 people were killed in July and August in small flash floods in various places from Sindh to northern areas. Chitral, seeing direct rainfall, was once again badly affected.

So for seven years, Pakistan saw floods every monsoon season, most of them being severe calamities. The length of consecutive monsoon flooding, along with its extent, is truly unprecedented and it is likely that this era of yearly flooding has not ended.

Now that the 2017 summer monsoon season has passed by, let us look at what has transpired this rainy season in terms of flooding. Monsoon rainfall has been comparatively mild. But it has by no means been benevolent.

When 2017 summer monsoon started, the urgent question of what was going to happen was paid some attention to by the authorities. Major floods were not expected.  Summer monsoon began at the end of June with heavy rainfall all over the country, especially in Sindh. The rainfall quickly became debilitating in many areas and the casualty figures started to rise. Many, however, did not die in flooding but only in rain-related incidents like electrocution and building collapse. Regardless, flash floods also broke out in many places, although the nation was spared riverine flooding, except for low flood levels in several rivers such as the Chenab and the Jhelum. The rainfall was severe. By 4th July, NDMA reported a death toll of 43. Spates of heavy rainfall and associated flash flooding continued throughout the next two months, occurring far and wide across the nation in all provinces and territories. The death toll continued to rise.

Significant flooding occurred at the end of August 2017. Heavy rainfall in Sindh on the 30th and 31th of August caused severe flooding in Karachi that inundated most of the city. In those two days, as much rain fell on Karachi as usually fell in a month. It is estimated that forty people were killed, mostly due to drowning and electrocution. This was an urban flood caused by the city’s paving and the clogging of drains by trash.

The monsoon rainfall continued throughout September, though no further significant floods occurred. By early September, the NDMA declared that 157 people in Pakistan died from rainfall since the summer monsoon began. Not all of the deaths were from flooding, though. The summer monsoon stayed longer than it usually does, withdrawing from Pakistan only by October. It is now a month since then. Looking back, 2017 can be considered to be the eighth consecutive year that Pakistan has seen a severe monsoon season. It is clear that Pakistan’s summer monsoon climate is not the same as it used to be.

Looking forward, we need to prepare for the summer monsoon of 2018. This year’s summer monsoon flooding is the mildest we have seen in the eight-year period, a period in which the summer monsoons have been getting progressively less severe, except in 2014. However, if there is another lesson that we should learn from the past eight years, it is that nothing is certain. We now live in a climate that is different from what existed before 2010 and there is every reason to expect that we are not going back. In fact, the monsoon climate is different in a wide variety of ways. Since 2010, the monsoons have been behaving differently than they did before 2010 in many ways.

In the past, Pakistan was normally a dry country and India and Bangladesh were the primary destination for monsoon rainfall. Most of the rain that fell in Pakistan fell over the Punjab Basin, which easily absorbed water, suppressing flooding. But in recent times, scientists noticed that rainfall patterns were slowly shifting northwest towards the mountains of Pakistan.

In 2010, this migration took a great leap forward, with much of the massive amounts of water entering Pakistan pouring over the mountainous areas where they produced severe flash flooding that quickly traveled down the steep terrain into the Indus, causing it to swell. The monsoon currents went off their usual course so much that they reached areas they had never reached before. Thus, flooding occurred in some regions that never saw monsoon rainfall before, such as Gilgit-Baltistan, northern reaches of Khyber-Paktunkwha, and FATA. This was truly a monumental climatic revolution.

It was not repeated next year. Instead, in 2011, monsoon rainfall primarily occurred in the south of Pakistan. This was also unusual. Monsoon rains usually fall in the northern half of the country and only rarely does much of it fall over Sindh and Balochistan. Severe flooding caused by such rains certainly is rare. But a year after monsoon rains went far off their usual course in 2010, they did so again and in a completely different direction.

And they have continued to go where they usually did not go before. Rain fell around the center of the country in 2012 and in 2013, the latter year seeing rain reaching down to southern Sindh as well. In 2014, severe rainfall occurred in Kashmir once again, north of where heavy rain usually falls, and also affected Gilgit-Baltistan. In both 2015 and 2016, Chitral, one of those areas which never saw monsoon rains before 2010, again saw severe rains and suffered floods. And in 2017, much of the heavy rains in Pakistan have been falling over Sindh, which means that monsoon rainfall in the south is now officially common. These recent events demonstrate that even if monsoon rains are not as severe as they were from 2010 to 2014, the monsoon season is still not what it once was.

And perhaps it will never be. Most people believe that this change in the monsoon is the result of climate change, namely global warming (the warming of the atmosphere caused by our greenhouse gas emissions). Heavier rainfall is an obvious result of this, because warmer air can hold more moisture. But a warming world can also change the weather in many other ways such as by altering air movement. Many scientists believe that global warming will make the monsoon more erratic causing more floods and more droughts. It seems that global warming might also be responsible for the shifting of monsoon rains in Pakistan towards the northwest. Global warming seems to have had a sudden impact on Pakistan’s monsoon in 2010. What we are facing now may just be the harbinger of the future.

We need to deal with near future right now. Finding out what the future holds in store, trying to predict what the monsoons of the years ahead could bring, is important because preparation for floods is important. The best way to do this is to find out what is behind the floods of the last eight years. The core causes of the radical shifts in the monsoon in that time period must be understood. There has to be some reason why the monsoon started to change radically in 2010. Global warming cannot be the only cause, because the world did not suddenly warm up a great deal in the year before the floods of that season started. Scientists have devised many explanations for the individual flood years but it is still a mystery why the monsoon has changed, a mystery we are still far from unraveling. We need to embark on a quest to find this out and understand what is happening to the monsoon, in order for us to know what we need to face in the future.

Pakistan now has a very important task to engage in and that is to prepare for the summer monsoon of 2018. We do not know what the monsoon clouds will bring next year. Perhaps they will be more ferocious than 2010 and bring unprecedented floods once again. Perhaps they will be milder than the rains of this year and no flooding will occur. But we need to do all we can to ready ourselves for any eventuality. A major reason behind the devastating effects of the recent floods in Pakistan is our inadequate preparation and ability to respond. This must change. We need to do all we can to get an idea of what the monsoon season will bring. Weather forecasting is poor in Pakistan. We take little help from the outside world. We should turn more to weather forecasters around the world for flood prediction, such as Peter Webster at Georgia Tech, whose meteorological team forecasted the 2012 and 2013 floods but failed to get an adequate response from the Pakistani authorities. When the nation is forewarned of floods, it can take various measures such as evacuating people and emptying out reservoirs so floodwaters can be contained in them. Forecasting is the key to managing floods. We have a massively developed river control system but lack the knowledge of how to use it in case of a catastrophe. A key part of improving Pakistan’s flood forecasting capacity is to uncover the secrets of this current monsoon era.

Making Pakistan a flood-resilient nation is a vital task that we must try our best to perform in the years ahead of us.

Tragedy at Bahawalpur

Eid is always a joyous time for any Muslim country, with three days of festivities and celebrations after a month of fasting. But for Pakistan, this Eid was marred by an enormous tragedy of a truly horrific nature. On June 25, the last day of Ramadan, an oil tanker on a highway near the city of Bahawalpur (southern Punjab) flipped over and crashed. 10,000 gallons of oil spilled out, forming large puddles. The scene of the accident quickly drew in a large crowd that tried to collect the oil. Several motorists stopped and as news of the accident spread, villagers from all around the area converged with buckets and cans to collect free oil. About an hour after the crash, the oil tanker went up in an enormous explosion which destroyed everything around it and set all the oil, and many of the people, on fire. Dozens died on the spot. Scores were wounded and taken to hospitals and the death toll rose over time. By the end of the day, the death toll was put at 150. The number of dead is now 219. 140 are injured, many critically.

The Bahawalpur oil tanker explosion is one of the worst accidents in Pakistan’s history, one of the worst road accidents in the world, and a major disaster in Pakistan. It is a testament to the various deficits in how the country is run. It is an example of the country’s poor road safety, inept authorities, inefficient emergency services, low public safety awareness, inadequate medical services, desperate poverty, and generally poor emergency management.

It is also an example of how poorly information from remote areas is processed in Pakistan, Details of the event have been muddled. Weeks after, there is no certainty regarding what happened. What we know is that a tank truck was driving from Karachi to Lahore on National Highway 5. It crashed in a rural area called Ramzanpur Joya, near the city of Bahawalpur. The truck was later revealed to be contracted for Shell Pakistan Limited.

Initially, it was reported that while turning a sharp bend on the highway, the truck burst one of its tires and the driver lost control, causing the vehicle to overturn. It was later revealed that a bus came in front of the truck and then suddenly braked, so the truck driver turned to the right to avoid hitting the bus, whereupon it overturned, blocked the road and caused a traffic jam. Many people in cars and on motorbikes, however, seemed content with stopping to collect the spilled oil. Many people who were working in plantations nearby learned of the accident and also rushed to the site to collect oil. As news spread, the crowd kept swelling and more and more men, women, and children gathered at the oil spill. People called their relatives on the cell phone to join in, and reportedly, a loudspeaker at a nearby mosque was used to inform people of the oil spill so they could come and collect it. The authorities, however, say that this is unconfirmed.

Local media arrived at the scene and videos were made of the oil spill. The police say that they also arrived at the scene and warned the crowd to get away from the oil, but they were ignored. According to witnesses, the driver of the crashed truck also told the crowd the same thing. He is quoted as saying, “What is the use of this petrol? What will you do with it now?” while carrying a bucket.

Videos taken of the crash scene, however, do not show any police.

45 minutes after the crash, the oil burst into flames. It is not known how the oil was ignited. The most likely explanation is that somebody lit a cigarette and threw the butt on the ground near the tanker. Other theories suggest it was a spark from one of the vehicles or the batteries of one of the cell phones people were using.

The tanker exploded, immediately incinerating the people around it. The fire rapidly spread through the oil slicks with hundreds trapped in it. Yet more people rushed to the site, this time with containers filled with water, and tried to extinguish the fire. Reportedly, the same mosque which told people of the crash now announced news of the fire and implored people to put it out. Then the fire brigade and Rescue 1122 arrived on the scene. They rescued people from the fire and put them in ambulances. After two hours of fighting the blaze, the firefighters managed to put it out.

There were no medical centers that were nearby. 90 of the victims were taken to two hospitals in Bahawalpur, the district hospital and Victoria Hospital. But these two hospitals had no burn centers, so 51 of the most seriously wounded were then airlifted to a hospital in Multan, dozens of miles to the north. Many of those injured suffered severe burns. Most of the people who died were unrecognizable. Many were burned down to the skeleton. Even though the driver suffered burns over 90 percent of his body, the police say they arrested him for their investigation. The driver made a statement and later died in hospital. A week later, the death toll rose to 200. At the time of writing, it stands at 250, while 140 are injured. Twenty of the dead are children.

The disaster is horrifying in terms of how so many died so quickly. Not to mention the severity of injuries amongst the survivors. Being burnt is one of the worst injuries people can sustain. Severe burns can lead to lasting disfigurement and disability. That is how several of the victims are going to end up, bearing the scars of the terrible event. All could have easily avoided ending up like this. The Bahawalpur oil tanker fire is a disaster that is senseless and gruesome to an extreme degree.

The nation’s sense of horror is somewhat deadened by frequent tragedies of the kind. In fact, the day before the tanker accident, there were two bomb blasts in Parachinar, FATA, which killed more than a hundred people and injured hundreds, as well as a suicide bombing in Quetta which killed 13.

Nonetheless, the oil tanker tragedy received far more attention than the Parachinar bombing tragedy.  Bhawalpur overshadowed Parachinar in the news as the Prime Minister shortened his visit to the UK to visit the tanker victims. Was it because mass deaths caused by terrorist attacks are much more common in Pakistan than mass deaths caused by transportation and industrial accidents? Or because FATA is a much more marginal and inaccessible area than southern Punjab?

Incidents like the Bahawalpur tanker disaster, in which crowds collected around oil spills and suffered from ignition of the oil, have happened several times before  in Pakistan, including one time when oil spilled from a tanker truck near Jhang in 1999 and 65 people died. No lessons have been learnt from that incident, as no policy change was made neither were people made more aware of the danger. We must not let it be the same with Bhawalpur oil tanker spill tragedy.

Already, another oil tanker accident has taken place in Vehari, People ran towards oil despite the Bahawalpur oil tanker tragedy being recent news. Pakistan is badly in need of learning the lessons from Bahawalpur.

Pakistan has an appalling record in road safety. The nation’s roads, particularly the highways, are hazardous because of the poor design of roads, poorly maintained vehicles, and reckless driving. The kind of vehicles that pose the greatest danger, those that can cause great disasters that threaten large numbers of people, are trucks loaded with hazardous materials, particularly tanker trucks.

Tanker trucks carry liquid materials. They usually consist of a large cylinder-shaped container on wheels. As the container is always wider than the wheels, tanker trucks have a high center of gravity and are therefore difficult and dangerous to drive. They can easily tip over. A violent crash can puncture the walls of the container and the contents can leak out. Therefore, tanker trucks that carry dangerous materials, of which the most common is oil, always need great safety precautions in their design and their operation. Pakistan has a number of laws dealing with this matter, but they tend to be archaic. Laws in Pakistan are not updated and often lag behind social progress.

The official inquiry on Bhawalpur found that the oil tanker did not follow proper safety guidelines. The truck, which carried 50,000 litres of fuel, had only four axles while an oil tanker needs at least 5 axles to carry that much weight. It also turned out that the fitness certificate of the truck was fake. It is quite appalling that such low standards were followed for something so hazardous. There obviously are other tanker trucks in the nation which are the same and Pakistan must now seek out all trucks which do not follow safety standards and get rid of them. Pakistan must improve both its laws and its enforcement of them.

The Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (OGRA) held Shell Pakistan Limited responsible for the accident, and ordered it to pay one million rupees to the family of each person killed and half a million rupees to each injured. Shell also had to pay a fine of 10 million rupees.

Though the tragedy was entirely avoidable, the owners of the oil tanker cannot be held solely responsible for it. Spills from oil tanker crashes tend not to pose a great danger because they tend to cover a small area and people usually get away from the oil. But in the case of Bahawalpur, (and many oil tanker crashes in Third World countries), people exposed themselves to extreme hazard by flocking to the site for oil. This part needs an explanation.

People rush to collect the oil because petroleum is very valuable. They intend either to sell the oil or use it for lighting fires. The people of the area where the crash took place are poor and suffer frequent power outages and energy shortages. It is difficult for them to obtain adequate fuel to light fires with. Getting their hands on free petroleum, which they could sell or light fires with, was a huge boon for them. They jumped at the opportunity that placed itself in their midst as a crashed truck leaking oil. The Bahawalpur oil tanker disaster is thus a prime example of how poorly the country is providing for its people. Southern Punjab is not the poorest part of Pakistan yet the rural villagers there say that the government focuses on development for the urban areas and for the elite, not for the common masses. The tragedy is a stark wake-up call for Pakistan to change its development priorities.

It is understood why the victims wanted the oil, but what needs to be understood is why they placed themselves in so much danger and why they could not take measures to make themselves safer while being thus exposed. That the victims had no or very little education is obvious. Education is chronically lacking in Pakistan, with the literacy rate at 58 percent for the entire nation. Yet, you don’t need literacy or education to know that petroleum is flammable and that you will get burnt if you are surrounded by burning oil. Some of the victims of the fire, the motorists and the truck driver, should have been less ignorant of the matter. Yet, they did not keep their distance.

It is a glaring display of the tendency to put material pursuit before personal safety. It seems people were not aware of how easy it was for the oil to ignite. But if it is true that somebody was smoking a cigarette in the vicinity and threw the burning butt onto the oil, it is carelessness that defies belief. What also defies belief is that the driver stood close to the oil all along. He, a trained professional, should have known better.

The ignorance of the masses is also revealed by how they responded after the oil caught fire. Witnesses say that they brought buckets of water to fight the fire. It is both useless and dangerous fighting oil fires with water. Oil does not mix with water and is lighter than water. Thus, it floats to the top of water and continues burning. The urgent goal for them was not to put the fire out but to rescue the people caught in fire. Pouring water on them not only will not work but could spread the burning oil further on the person and around. The way to save a person covered in burning oil is to cover them with a sheet so that the oil is starved of oxygen. If material used to cover them is porous, then it should be made wet first as oil cannot penetrate a wet cloth.

As Pakistan develops, it will tackle desperate poverty. However, improving the lot of the poor is a long-term goal. What needs to be done more urgently is to make the common masses more safety-conscious.

The police had the duty of keeping people safe. If people ignored police’s call to stay away, the latter should have used force to keep people away. This would have been easier if they cordoned off the area before the crowd assembled. But the police did not do so because they arrived too late. It is very common for the police in Pakistan to take a long time responding to an emergency.

What should be done in events like these is for the driver to call the police immediately and for the nearest police officers to arrive. A significant police presence all along highways is important so that police can quickly reach scenes of accidents. But when people are in need of being rescued, the police alone are not adequate. Ambulances, fire trucks, and other rescue vehicles need to be able to reach any accident scene with lightning speed.

The big problem in the case of the Bahawalpur tragedy is the huge numbers of people affected, which requires emergency crews to arrive in significant numbers. They would have to come from a major hospital and fire station. Highways are very long stretches and one cannot have a big emergency station located along every ten miles or so. Emergency services are concentrated in populated localities, whereas a highway mostly runs through areas little population. But highways are also hazardous places. Significant safety coverage is badly needed.

There should be firefighting, rescue, and medical facilities specifically for the highways, just as the highways have their own police units. There must be emergency vehicles on hand which can reach any part of the highway in a short period of time and there should be small firefighting and medical stations spread along the highway. Such hospitals would have been of immense value to the Bhawalpur burn victims.

After suffering severe burns, the victims of the oil tanker fire then suffered from severe lack of medical facilities. There were some hospitals nearby to go to, but they had no burn centers, so the injured had to be shifted further away to Multan and Lahore. The number of injured turned out to be difficult for medical facilities to accommodate.

People who suffer severe burns are in vital need of extensive hospitalization. They often need a very long time to recover, during which time they need to remain in medical care. Medical institutions typically have a particular facility for burn victims known as a burn center. Burn centers need great care in having sanitation because burn victims are highly prone to infection.

Healthcare services in Pakistan are in an extremely poor state. The number of hospitals is inadequate and healthcare workers are in short supply. The government spends only 2.6 percent of its money on healthcare and medical services are usually freely available only to the rich bureaucrats. Hospital beds, which are particularly important for burn victims, number only 0.6 for every 1,000 Pakistanis. Given how common terrorism is in Pakistan, one would expect the nation’s hospitals to be adapted to treating large numbers of wounded.

So, Pakistan badly needs change in many ways. But what we need to do is go over what should have been done during Bahawalpur emergency on June 25. Firefighters arrived immediately after the blaze started. But that was one of the biggest mistakes. They should have sped towards the scene as soon as the oil tanker had the accident. It is not enough to respond once a calamity starts. Preventive action must also be taken. Hence, as soon as the driver got out of the truck, he should have called police. The police should have notified the fire department and both should have arrived in case a blaze started.

Officers that arrived on the scene should assume that people might be attracted to free oil and taken preventative action to prevent the crowd from forming. If they could not, saving the crowd from the threat of an oil fire should have been left to the fire department. A fire truck could be able to disperse the crowd by driving towards them or by spraying them with water, but there is a better course of action. When the fire tenders are called to the scene, this is what they should have done. They should have taken out their hoses and used it to spray foam, or whatever else they use to fight oil fires, onto the oil, specifically around the people collecting the oil. Oil fire inhibitors not only extinguish oil fires but prevent them from starting or spreading in the first place. The oil collectors could be annoyed at this action and could leave.

We cannot change what happened. But we can change what could happen in the future. As another such calamity could happen any moment, and indeed nearly did so in Vehari, we need to start now. All emergency services across Pakistan must be instructed in what to do if an oil tanker crashes and oil spills. There must also be a review done of the entire oil tanker service in Pakistan. All tanker trucks must be examined to ensure safety compliance.

Finally, we need to make everybody in Pakistan aware that they should not do what the Bahawalpur victims did.  As the disaster is a recent event and the treatment of the wounded is an ongoing event, we have the opportunity to raise awareness. One aspect of poverty and ignorance is that people are unaware of events as they happen. They are too busy with livelihood to keep up with the news or are deprived of means of news. But we must find a way to make sure every Pakistani knows of what happened at Bahawalpur and what should have happened to prevent the disaster. Reporting news of calamities should simultaneously be the means of educating people in safety measures.

The struggle for the survivors of Bahawalpur is just beginning. Scores of people are still badly wounded and in hospital, and while the death toll right now has stopped rising, the victims might in the coming days contract infection. Action at this stage can improve their care. We should shift the victims to burn centers all across Pakistan. Donations too can help. How much people can donate to a relief operation is dependent on what sort of image the disaster gives. This is where media sets in. Humanitarian organizations should appeal for help and rouse the world with coverage of the disaster.

The hundred injured victims have a long and arduous recovery ahead of them. Most of them will be affected for life and must be supported.

Every aspect of the disaster calls for change in Pakistan. Better measures to prevent oil spills and oil truck crashes are needed. Better Emergency services to do their best at rescuing and treating people affected by oil fires are needed. But one of the things that we most need to change is what is the easiest to change, the danger of crowds being drawn towards oil spills. The Bahawalpur calamity is the very epitome of an avoidable disaster. Everybody who fell victim did so because they placed themselves in danger. Had people stayed away, the oil likely would not even have ignited and would be safely cleanend up.

There is much that Pakistan needs in the way of emergency services and the management of hazards and disasters. But what is needed in Pakistan most of all is that its people are made capable of ensuring their own safety.