The Rebel Road…

I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man. – Ernesto Che Guevara

Urban disaster recovery: a crisis of management.

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Since its creation Pakistan has seen great strides in the fields of industry and commerce, trade and foreign relations, economics and growth, etc. However, there have always been certain issues that have cropped up repeatedly – whether due to actual logistical impossibilities or the ineptitude of those in charge remains the question.

Recent history has seen a multitude of instances in which lives and property have been destroyed by accidents or misfortunes, but Pakistan is not an anomaly in this regard. World over such calamities and disasters occur, fairly regularly in some cases. An example of this is the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in which at least 1,836 people lost their lives and approximately $81.2 billion of property damage was recorded. Another recent example is of the floods in Oxfordshire, England in July 2007. In all these cases fast, dependable and effective help was on the scene very quickly.

In the words of Arjen Boin, author of The Politics of Crisis Management, a crisis refers to ”an undesirable and unexpected situation: when we talk about crisis, we usually mean that something bad is to befall a person, group, organisation, culture, society, or, when we think really big, the world at large. Something must be done, urgently, to make sure that this threat will not materialise.”

Crisis management forms the backbone of civil life and planning. The roots of crisis management can be traced back to Ancient Egypt where excavations prove that hand-operated pumps may have been employed to extinguish fires Ancient Romans had a formal fire brigade which employed slaves to put out fires all over the city. In short, even the most ancient societies made sure they were ready for such eventualities.

In contrast, help in Pakistan usually arrives when the person is beyond it, if the person is lucky enough to receive it at all. There are numerous examples of such mismanagements; the Icchra and Alfatah fires in Lahore, the fire in the Parliament building and Privatisation Commission building in Islamabad and most recently the PNSC building fiasco in Karachi. It seems as if no one is paying attention anymore.

However, the one incident which exposed the Pakistani crisis management system for a sham, not only to the people but also, to the government was the Earthquake of October 2005. Not only were there thousands upon thousands of helpless Pakistani citizens out in the rain and frost for, at least, three days but in the very heart of Pakistan i.e. Islamabad the situation was equally helpless. I refer to the collapse of the Margala Towers, a residential apartment building complex in Islamabad. So poorly built were the buildings that they crumbled at the first jolt, pinning many under tons of debts. At least 90 survivors were pulled out from the wreckage – many more, however, perished. The point is to highlight the fact that most of these deaths were needless. The fact is that it was only after foreign help arrived that any measure of rescue came into effect – before that the Pakistani rescuers and firefighters had to admit defeat since they simply did not have the necessary tools with which to rescue those unfortunate victims.

A natural question that comes to mind is – where are all our tax rupees going?

The relatively recent blaze in Icchra, Lahore, on the 23rd of February 2005, which killed 3 people and injured many others sent a shockwave through Lahori society. It confronted them with the fact that the Lahore Civil Administration was unable to deal with even the most fundamentally simple fire. I call it simple because the shops on fire, were at most triple storied buildings. The traders and merchants of Ichra market blamed the Lahore Electric Supply Company (LESCO) saying that the old and faulty wiring of LESCO in the Icchra market was the primary reason for the fire. According to one shopkeeper, “it was a disaster waiting to happen.”

Kareema Bibi, a local worker of Icchra market relates what she experienced that day. She says, “I was going back to the shop when I suddenly I heard a string of small explosions and voices which yelled ‘Aag Aag… Bhaago!’ and I turned around and tried to run back. There as so much pushing and ahoving that I fell down and injured my elbow in the process. I’m lucky that I wasn’t trampled under all the people. The firefighters came after some time. If they had come earlier much more could have been saved.”

Major Aurangzeb, the spokesman for LESCO explained their situation saying, “a serious loss of funds, going into millions of rupees, had been incurred by LESCO due to the Icchra fire. High tension wires of nearly 5 km radius were burnt along with nearly 10 transformers.”

In another famous incident a year earlier, on 13th February 2004, Al-Fateh store caught fire. The fire in the three-story building took 36 hours before it could be brought under control. Millions of rupees worth of property damage was the end result of a fire which the firefighters should have been able to extinguish in a fraction of that time.

Occuring shortly after another high profile fire in Pace Shopping Mall, Al-Fatah’s fire created outrage in the entire city of Lahore. Al-fatah has achieved landmark status in the city. The upper and upper-middle class declare it the shop of their choice. For such a landmark to burn down in such a manner was appalling for Lahori citizens.

Dr. Ahmed Raza, Emergency Officer – Operations Lahore, of the newly created 1122-rescue squad stated that, “Our service are up to date and, here in Lahore, we are able to counter any situation that presents itself in a satisfactory manner.” Continuing on this line Mr. Faheem Jahanzaib, Public Relations Officer for the 1122-Rescue Lahore service said that, “The rescue 1122 squad came into being largely due to the efforts of Dr. Rizwan Bashir. Our purpose is to save those individuals who die on their way to the hospitals and clinics due to a lack of proper facilities.”

On the question of why firefighters were so utterly helpless as regarding the Icchra and Al-fatah fires Mr. Faheem commented, “The equipment and procedures being used now are far better than at any period in the past. The fire fighting department of the Rescue 1122-squad came into being only 2-3 months ago and in this time we have organised it efficiently. Before this we used to help on a very informal basis and the equipment being used before was also very old and in poor shape.”

Islamabad has always been a very high profile city – consequently the fires there have also been rather high profile in nature. The most famous amongst them was the 26th June, 2007 National Assembly fire. This fire started in three rooms up on the fourth floor of the National Assembly building and it was feared the irreplaceable records of the Public Accounts committee as well as the records of the Service branch of the National Assembly were burnt. The firefighters took about an hour and a half to extinguish the fire but, due to improper equipment, came very close to giving their own lives for that purpose. One fireman, Mr. Khizar Hiyat, even fainted after having inhaled smoke and ash and had to be rushed off to the Federal Government Services Hospital for treatment.

There has still been no confirmation of why, exactly, the fire started or who started it or for what purpose. Perhaps it was merely an accident or maybe there was something more sinister at work… no one can say for certain.

Similarly, in the case of the September 1st 2006 fire, which blazed in the Privatisation Commission of Pakistan building, firefighters were able to rescue most of the building except the photocopy department and some wooden cabins. Also, important documents relating to details of Privatisation in Pakistan were lost in the fire.

It was said that the fire started due to a short-circuit in the photocopying machines and then spread to the wooden cabins, which held these important papers.

In both these incidents it was the sheer courage of the fire fighters, ill-equipped as they were, which helped them overcome the fires and save lives and property. However, there are times when courage, alone, is not enough.

Karachi has seen its share of disasters – the most recent one being the series of rainfalls which have paralysed urban life there. But Karachi faces an extremely serious situation regarding fires. Not only do the land and sea, breezes constantly fan any fires that may occur, but being the economic hub of Pakistan, such emergencies result in serious losses to the people of Pakistan in terms of finances.

The CDGK has recently spent a lot of money in buying new equipment especially for its firefighting squad. These include two snorkel pumps that send water at high pressure to reach higher altitudes, along with a number of new vehicles. However, it has been seen that these expenditures have not been sufficient in dealing with the fires that break out in the city.

In December 2004, a fire broke out in Olympia Textile Mill at 12:26 pm. The fire fighters were utterly helpless in bringing the raging inferno under control – this in spite the fact that all the fire engines had been called to the scene. The combined might of the Karachi firefighters was not enough to quell the blaze therefore fire tenders from the Pakistan Navy, Karachi Port Trust and Steel Mills had to be called in. Inspite of all this help the fire could not be put out in less than 48 hours.

Similarly the very recent fire in the PNSC building is a matter of grave concern. This is the second fire to set the PNSC building alight in less than six months. The matter which is most disturbing is that even the new equipment, which the Karachi government bought at considerable expense, could not deal with such a fire. The 55 million rupee snorkel, reportedly, failed to operate. The fire killed one person and injured four others before it was finally brought under control with the assistance of Pakistan Navy helicopters.

These clouds do, however have an occasional silver lining. Mr. Adeel Ansari, who was caught on the roof of the PNSC building while it burnt beneath him, was successfully rescued by the Pakistan Navy Helicopters in spite of the black smoke creating difficulty in visibility for the pilots. In a live phone call from the roof top Mr. Ansari claimed that he had contacted the firefighters below via his cell phone and that he was hopeful that he would be rescued soon.

Mr. Rafay Alam, a local columnist, lawyer and environmentalist, commented on the PNSC building saying, “It is a display of the incompetence that has come to be attributed with all crisis relief efforts in Pakistan. The fact that we can spend millions of rupees on equipment that fails to work at a critical juncture coupled with the ineffective training that fire fighters receive creates these situations of failure over and over again. Crisis relief services in Pakistan have become the laughing stock of the world. City life comes to an abrupt and utter halt as soon as the first drops of rain fall. Traffic jams plague the roads and highways, social and commercial insecurity prevails. However, I have a great regard for the men and women of the fire department who jump into fires to save other people without adequate protective even meager covering to prevent themselves from being burnt.”

Mr Alam continued, “It is not just because of the bad equipment or ill training that we have such high incidences of fire or other crisis risks. The fact of the matter is that all of Pakistan, especially Karachi, is law-less. Building laws prohibit anyone from building a staircase shorter than 6 feet in width but builders and architects prefer to build only 4 feet wide staircases to maximize ‘sale area’. It is, by law, necessary for high rises to have external fire escapes but point out one building which has built this safety structure. Another example is the manner in which token parking has been introduced in Pakistan – builders are supposed to provide parking for every 1000 foot of built area, however usually builders don’t do this. The result is that citizens end up paying money out of their own pockets that the builders save in the form of token parking. Electrical companies do not inspect faulty wiring and the builders are free to use any kind of material they want. In short, building laws are simply shrugged off by influential builders who line their pockets with the money they save – at the expense of lives lost later”

The conclusion we are forced to reach is that there is still lingering mismanagement and ineptitude within the ranks of the administrators of crisis management in Pakistan. Whether the reason for this is corruption, laziness or simply lack of proper training and knowledge is a question that has become academic in nature. A radical restructuring of government services like Firefighting, Ambulances, Police, etc. along efficient, effective and people-friendly lines must be pursued to ensure the safety of the Pakistani citizens and tax payers.


Written by redtribution

August 28, 2007 at 4:54 pm

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