Lessons from Pakistan: Governance is key to disaster resilience

Flood-affected men at a collapsed mud house in Pakistan. Will infrastructure be rebuilt, in a sustainable, disaster-resilient fashion? Photo: AFP
Flood-affected men at a collapsed mud house in Pakistan. Will infrastructure be rebuilt, in a sustainable, disaster-resilient fashion? Photo: AFP


  • Resilience has to be built into infrastructure, policy, law and regulation, decision-making, accounting, insurance and public awareness.

Pakistan’s flood damage, according to initial estimates, amounts to $10 billion. The final figure is likely to be far higher—significant road infrastructure has been damaged, apart from residential and commercial built-up area. Livestock has been lost, crops destroyed, and shops and factories washed away. Requests for help would go out, money would come pouring in. But will infrastructure be rebuilt, in a sustainable, disaster-resilient fashion? That question arises because disaster resilience depends on one key factor, of which Pakistan faces a serious deficit: governance.

Bangladesh and Orissa are two places that learned disaster management the hard way, after deadly cyclones in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and have left behind them huge death tolls and property damage that had been regular features of life on the rim of cyclone-prone Bay of Bengal. It was a combination of construction—of sturdy rescue shelters that doubled up as schools and community centres in normal times, of roads that could withstand flooding—and governance, spanning early warning systems, awareness programmes and training of armies of civil volunteers who know what to do in case a disaster strikes, that worked for these places.

Knowledge about what to do is not in short supply. The UN’s Sendai framework for resilient infrastructure, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, with whose assistance India leads the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, and the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Risk Reduction are but three sources of ready reference on what is to be done. Knowing, however, is not the same as doing. The mice knew they had to bell the cat. But the question remained, who would bell the cat? In the case of disaster resilience, the key ingredient, the glue that holds everything else together, is sound governance.

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The risk of disaster, location and time-specific, must be fully understood. Disaster risk governance to manage risk must be strengthened. Public and private investment must be mobilized to invest in resilience. The state and society must prepare for disasters, to survive them and to rebuild and rehabilitate themselves.

This has been broken down further into action points:

Five recommendations to address the five obstacles to resilient infrastructure

1: Get the basics right

1.1: Introduce and enforce regulations, construction codes, and procurement rules

1.2 : Create systems for appropriate infrastructure operation, maintenance, and post-incident response

1.3 : Provide appropriate funding and financing for infrastructure planning, construction, and maintenance

2: Build institutions for resilience

2.1: Implement a whole-of-government approach to resilient infrastructure, building on existing regulatory systems

2.2: Identify critical infrastructure and define acceptable and intolerable risk levels

2.3: Ensure equitable access to resilient infrastructure

3: Create regulations and incentives for resilience

3.1 : Consider resilience objectives in master plans, standards, and regulations and adjust them regularly to account for climate change

3.2 : Create economic incentives for service providers to offer resilient infrastructure assets and services

3.3 : Ensure that infrastructure regulations are consistent with risk-informed land use plans and guide development toward safer areas

4: Improve decision making

4.1: Invest in freely accessible natural hazard and climate change data

4.2: Make robust decisions and minimize the potential for regret and catastrophic failures

4.3: Build the skills needed to use data and models and mobilize the know-how of the private sector

5: Provide financing

5.1: Provide adequate funding to include risk assessments in master plans and early project design

5.2: Develop a government-wide financial protection strategy and contingency plans

5.3: Promote transparency to better inform investors and decision makers

(Source: World Bank Group, Lifelines: The Resilient Infrastructure Opportunity)

The same report contains a very illuminating chart, which shows the rising curve obtained by plotting built-up utility against expenditure and another curve, with a steeper slope above it, showing how much greater is the reliability of a built-up utility when governance accompanies the spending ( 15).

There are examples from other parts of the world: The Japanese developed and enforced strong building codes to make buildings earthquake resilient, by improving codes, investing in capacity to comply with the codes and replacing permission to build with confirmation, involving private parties in the business of inspection and confirmation of standards. For such a system to work, the challenge is not so much ethics in society as governance mechanisms and functional institutions to nail deviants from the norm.

As climate change makes extreme weather events ever more frequent, resilience has to be built into infrastructure, policy, law and regulation, decision-making, accounting, insurance and public awareness. India, as other countries, must identify their climate-change vulnerable regions, cities and states and act to put in place resilience systems without losing time.

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