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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The Future of Humanity’s Oasis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s bio:

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