Pakistan: More effective disaster preparedness urged as storm kills 200

News and Press Release
Originally published
KARACHI, 26 June 2007 (IRIN) - Three days after the rainstorm that lashed Paksitan's main port city of Karachi on 23 June, Khursheed Jamshed, 50, is unsure if her 20-year-old son, Pervaiz, has survived.

"He went out with some friends, and has not returned. We pray he is alive. He has not returned yet," Khursheed told IRIN in Karachi.

As if the chaos unleashed by the storm was not enough, people in Karachi, which has a population of some 15 million people, were bracing for Cyclone Yemyin 03b, which has formed in the Arabian Sea 150km south of Karachi.

"The cyclone will bring heavy rain to Karachi and coastal areas over the next two days," the director-general of Pakistan's Meteorological Office, Qamaruz Zaman, told IRIN.

By 26 June, there were indications the cyclone had spared Karachi but had lashed coastal areas of Sindh and the adjacent Balochistan Province. "We have made arrangements to evacuate people from coastal areas," Waseem Akhtar, adviser to the provincial chief minister of home affairs, said.

Four thousand evacuated

At least 4,000 people had been evacuated from coastal areas of Sindh and Balochistan by 26 June, and the army, navy and paramilitary forces remained on high alert.

Despite those measures, 14 cyclone-related deaths were reported in Balochistan by 26 June.

Rains triggered by the cyclone meanwhile created panic in a city still reeling from the storm on 23 June.

As a result of the winds and rain, house walls collapsed, giant billboards tumbled over and electricity cables fell to the ground.

Rizwan Edhi of the charitable Edhi Foundation said "at least 200 and possibly more people died in rain-related incidents".

This information was borne out by Sindh Health Minister Syed Sardar Ahmed, who confirmed the death toll. "We have alerted hospitals, and are trying to do all we can to manage the confusion."

Poorly installed hoardings

People though remain generally dissatisfied with the government's efforts.

"It was terrible. Poorly installed billboards crashed down before our eyes," said Ilyas Ghani, 24, who was out on his motorcycle during the storm. He and his brother, Riaz Ghani, called for tougher rules regarding the installation of giant advertising hoardings, which have caused deaths in the past as well.

People also staged protests over prolonged power cuts in Karachi. In some cases, power cuts lasted 28 hours or more.

With uprooted trees, billboards and debris blocking roads, traffic virtually came to a standstill. As ambulances belonging to the Edhi Foundation and other organisations began collecting bodies on 23 June, relatives searched the hospitals for their missing loved ones.

"My father is missing. We are not sure if he is dead or injured," said Ameena Anjumn, 20, daughter of Hamid Khan, 48, at Abbasi Shaheed Hospital.

The Edhi Foundation and other welfare groups said most deaths were caused by falling walls, tumbling billboards or electrocution - as power cables fell across roads.

According to initial estimates, at least 2,000-3,000 houses have been damaged in the city and at least 1,000 have suffered significant damage, including collapsing walls.

Shanty town hit

Some of the worst damage came in low-income residential areas, such as Orangi - South Asia's largest shanty town with a population of nearly 800,000 people.

"Virtually every second or third house here has been damaged," said Ali Kassim, 30, a social activist working in the area.

The Karachi-based Urban Resource Centre, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that advocates housing rights, said 50 percent of Karachi residents live in shanty towns or 'katchi abadis' made up of houses built from clay, unbaked brick, timber or sometimes mere canvas. The number of such persons is also rising rapidly in all major cities, experts said.

Millions of people live in unsafe houses and are vulnerable to roof or wall collapses. According to the HRCP, at least 90 people died across the country in 2006 as the result of falling roofs or walls. Hundreds of others were injured.

Cyclone damage

Another 300-400 houses in Sindh and Balochistan were reported to have suffered damage from the cyclone still hovering over the coast.

While the storm and the havoc it has caused has apparently alerted the authorities to the need to take preventive action ahead of the cyclone, with evacuations continuing, many fear it is too little too late.

Sindh Chief Minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim has already criticised the "weather authorities" for failing to issue timely warnings about the storm.

After the devastating earthquake of October 2005 that hit northern areas of Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, killing at least 75,000 people, there had been much talk of a disaster-readiness plan in the country.

"Each year, people die in floods or due to collapsing walls. Most housing in the country is unsafe," said I.A.Rehman, the director of Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission (HRCP).