Although I had never worked in an emergency team until I went to Pakistan last year for Oxfam’s floods response, I wasn’t new to disasters.
I had fundraised in 2004 after the Indian Ocean tsunami, I had campaigned for better protection of civilians in Darfur, and I had watched in horror when the Haiti earthquake happened.
But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I got to Pakistan. Not in the first few months of the disaster, when millions of people were living in tents in a mind-blowing 50 degree heat. Not later when I met families who had made the sometimes long journey home to find nothing but a pile of earth where houses and their lives had been.
The heartbreak of a disaster cannot be underestimated. I will never forget talking to women who thrust their sick babies in my face in a bid to get the care they so desperately needed, who would pluck at their clothes to show they had nothing in the world but the cloth on their back, whose eyes would well up with tears as they became overwhelmed by the enormity of what had happened to them.
Without a doubt, the Pakistan floods of 2010-11 were massive – too big for any one government to deal with. Twenty million people were affected – that’s pretty much the whole population of Australia. But what takes this tragedy to new levels is that, like most things, prevention is better than cure and simply not enough was done to protect ordinary Pakistanis from disasters. Why wait for something terrible to happen when government and people can at least partially protect themselves beforehand?
I was in Islamabad when the floods hit Australia earlier this year. Watching it unfold on TV, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarities and differences between Pakistan – one of the poorest countries in the world – and Australia, which has resources to draw on to support its people in times of crisis.
While there’s always room for improvement in emergency response, when the floods struck in Australia, there were generally effective early-warning systems in place, orderly evacuations and an extensive government-led reconstruction program initiated quickly after the crisis. In contrast, the response in Pakistan is widely acknowledged to have been slow and disorganised, with devastating and prolonged impacts on the people.
But there were also similarities: in both countries, no one expected floods of such massive scale to occur. People from two very different countries suddenly had common needs: to have a home, to have clothes on their backs, to be safe and healthy.
The other thing that struck me in both countries was how much people came together to help each other. While the involvement of national and state authorities in disaster prevention is essential – especially for providing expertise, money, equipment and leadership – it is what’s done by local governments and the people themselves that really makes a difference. This is where lives are saved – people, money and expertise are needed in local communities as much as in a capital city.
I should know this lesson from well before going to Pakistan. My grandfather was a volunteer member of the State Emergency Service (SES) for more than 25 years. Based in the hills of Perth, he spent time preparing firebreaks, maintaining SES vehicles, helping families cope with storm damage and looking for people who got lost in the hills.
I grew up near Harvey in south-west Australia, and was lucky to never have to face a major disaster at home. But going to Pakistan, and seeing the floods in Australia, made me realise the importance of the volunteering work my grandfather did – to be the person that literally reached out to give someone a hand when they needed it most, or to have worked to prevent that situation happening in the first place.
Sadly, the people of Pakistan will continue to face disasters – from floods, earthquakes and conflict. It is a tragedy that there are people, some of whom I have met, that had to flee their homes during the fighting in the north of Pakistan two years ago and were just returning home last year when their lives were destroyed yet again by floods.
Everyone in Pakistan agrees that better preparation for disasters is a good idea. But making it happen is another matter. It needs money. It needs experts. It needs time between disasters for a country to recover and then plan ahead for the next situation.
In Australia, we can’t physically do all this for Pakistan. The Pakistan Government is making some headway and has some of the expertise, money and people needed. But Australians can help – this is what Pakistan needs.
What is great is that Australian aid is now prioritising work to reduce the risk of disasters – it means that next time there is a flood in Pakistan (and there will be a next time), the school Australian aid builds may be protected and not washed away. It means the aid Australians give will last longer and do more.
Prevention is better than cure, and the more this message can be shouted from the rooftops, the better.
This opinion editorial was first published by ABC’s The Drum Opinion on 27 July 2011.