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.
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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.

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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).