Time for a change

Updated 11 May, 2016 12:13pm

Yet another year of floods. Floods that have now become routine. So routine, that the havoc they wreak doesn’t even make news.

A heatwave that should not have, but did, take us by surprise; that took more lives, in Karachi in particular, than it ever should have. Tragically. Needlessly.

Earthquakes that pock the calendar. Each taking a toll — a toll that keeps adding up.

Yes. 2015 was a year of disasters. It was not the first. It will not be the last.

Of course, it was also another year of resilience. What else could it have been?

Once all the death and destruction has been counted, all the tears accounted for; once the moment of disaster has passed, aid workers have departed, television cameras switched off, attention diverted; all that is left, then, is resilience.

This is a picture of resilience.

Resilience is that technical-sounding poetic term that we seek solace in. It is the resolve to bounce back, the will to try to put things together again, the determination to mend what is broken, the insistence to move on with life.

We talk about resilience with great and justified pride. The dignity with which the poor in Pakistan have coped with one disaster after another is remarkable.

But there is also a hollowness in how we – the chattering classes – talk about resilience. As if it is something unique to Pakistan and Pakistanis. As if we have it in greater abundance than others. As if having it makes up for everything else. As if it is infinite, unending, self-replenishing. The thing to know about resilience is that it should not be tested too often. It does erode. Something is bound to give. Something breaks. Usually, resilience itself.

Also read: A disaster foretold

But what else can the poor, the marginalised, the vulnerable, do? Except to be resilient. Yet resilience cannot be the coping strategy of a nation. In Pakistan, that is exactly what it has become. We resign to disasters because (a) they are inevitable, and (b) we are resilient. Newsflash, 2015: Wrong on both counts!

In the age of climate change, disasters will become more frequent, not less. But it is not climate change that kills people, makes them homeless, steals their livelihoods. It is not earthquakes. It is not heatwaves. It is certainly not ‘nature’s will’. Nor can it be the ‘will’ of a benevolent and merciful God. It is, instead, man’s neglect.

True. Nature’s wrath cannot always be predicted, but it can be anticipated; and it can be prepared for. There is no excuse for Pakistan – being what it is, and being where it is – not being prepared for floods. For earthquakes. For heatwaves. The surprise is that they keep catching us by surprise. Our surprise is borne out of our neglect.

That the poor suffer more in disasters cannot be because God loves them less. Nor because they are more sinful. It is because they live under roofs more shabby, on grounds more fragile, on streets less covered and in rooms more suffocating.

That they demonstrate resilience in the face of all this is not just a testimony to their fortitude. It is also a reflection of our neglect.

Nowhere is this neglect more apparent than in our attitude towards disaster management. Disaster management cannot just be preparedness to respond to disasters. It has to be as much about avoiding disasters; about minimising damage.

It cannot simply be to provide food and shelter to the displaced, cash to the heirs of the dead and photo ops to politicians. It must also be to invest in the living conditions of the poor so that their reservoirs of resilience are not tested so brutally, so often.

Ultimately, development is the only feasible strategy for disaster management. Pride must not come only from how we ‘show’ resilience in the face of disaster, but from how much we invest in ‘building’ resilience so that we do not have to show it as much when disaster strikes.

In the race between climate change and the resilience of our poor that now seems inevitable, development is our best, maybe our only, bet. To not invest in development will be to erode our resilience. To invest in it is to conserve resilience for the moment when it will truly be needed.

May 2016 not test our resilience as 2015 did.

Photo: Relief goods being brought to the flood affected village of Kas Koroona in the outskirts of Peshawar|Abdul Majeed Goraya, White Star

This was originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue. Through a selection of photographs, the Herald took a look at some of the events and developments that were extremely significant in 2015.To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.