COMMENT: Climate change in Pakistan – too much and too little water

While the current monsoon season is still on in Pakistan, the July rains have revealed that despite recurrent floods for the last five years, we still lack the right set of policies and practices. In order to avoid generalisations, let us discuss the institutional, financial, and politico-economic aspects of these policies.

But first we should know that one of the major manifestations of climate change in Pakistan is the ‘state of availability of water’ – either the scarcity of water or the abundance of it. The country receives its major chunk of average annual precipitation in a few weeks, and the rest of the year remains dry. We are not in a position to store water when it is abundantly available and this leads to a situation where uncontrolled water causes floods.

The flip side of the lack of water storage capacity causes a drought-like situation during dry spells, when one has to meet the competing demands of water for irrigation, energy generation, and both domestic and commercial consumption. Not only do we observe extreme variations in the availability of water every year, certain regions of Pakistan face the consequences of these extremes in the same manner year after year.

The right policies can prevent natural calamities from turning into human disasters

It is said that natural calamities cannot be avoided. However, with the right set of policies and practices, one can prevent those calamities from turning into human disasters.

We are living in a country with abundant government and limited governance. To begin with, more than 22 organisations and departments, including the National Disaster Management Authority, Provincial Disaster Management Authority, District Disaster Management Authority, Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority, Crisis Management Cells, Federal Flood Commission, Meteorological Department, Rescue 1122, Civil Defence, Irrigation departments, civil works departments, and municipalities have a direct role to play in flood management, but are still not able to deliver as a team.

It is true that the efficiency of many of these organisations has improved compared to previous years. However, one still needs to see how this efficiency will be converted into feasible and effective plans (and practices) for early warning, rescue, relief, and rehabilitation.

No focal organisation to devise and implement flood management strategies

To me, the missing links in the institutional aspect of flood management are overlapping mandates and the ambiguous division of labour. There is no focal organisation with a clear mandate to not only liaise with other departments to devise a flood management strategy, but also to get that strategy implemented.

In the absence of such a focal organisation, ‘adhocism’ prevails. For instance, the meteorology department provides weather predictions to more than 100 offices/departments. Many simply ignore its predictions. Some do consider them but can’t take any action, while some do take these predictions seriously but the success of their actions depends on other institutions.

For example, the National Disaster Management Authority may keep its agencies alert after receiving a meteorology office forecast. However, it has no mandate to seek compliance to ensure that people living in low-lying areas, or those settled in dry riverine beds, have been relocated to safe places. Nor has it a mandate to check whether civil works and irrigation departments have actually reinforced and strengthened dykes around important locations.

Without such a mandate, the inter-organisational coordination and pre-monsoon flood preparedness meetings become very mechanical, which in turn leads to preparedness plans either for “best case scenarios”, or in rare cases for “business as usual”. Yet climate change adaptation is planning about the “worst case scenario” and then implementing these plans.

I argue that despite their pre-monsoon meetings, flood management agencies were not prepared for the “worst case scenario” either in the Chitral Valley, where a glacier lake outburst in July created havoc and resulted in a humanitarian crisis, nor in Peshawar where the Budhani nullah brought a disaster when heavy rain and flash floods last month caused the nullah – which was obstructed by solid waste and encroachments – to overflow its banks.

Had a clear mandate been given to an organisation to be the focal agency for flood management, the losses to the people of Chitral and Peshawar could have been minimised.

The impact of under-financing

The institutional aspect of flood management is directly linked to the financial aspect. “Money is not everything, but everything is nothing without money,” was not said in a flood management perspective. However, it becomes very relevant when one observes that under-financing is one of the reasons for the under-performance of institutions mandated for flood management.

Flood preparedness requires the reinforcing and re-strengthening of infrastructure – besides other things. Flood rescue requires not only trained human resources, but also equipment like boats, helicopters, and heavy machinery. Flood relief requires targeting flood survivors, reaching out to them and meeting their immediate needs for shelter, food and medicines. Flood rehabilitation requires bringing back resilience to both the communities and infrastructure.

While federal and provincial governments do allocate some funds for infrastructural projects, there is none for flood rescue and relief. Thus, we turn natural calamities into human disasters.

Political economy

A political-economy lens needs to be applied to investigate how institutions and decision-making responds to crises of too much and too little water, as well as oscillations between those extremes, including managing volatility as a chronic state, as compared with emergency responses.

Water allocations under Indus River System Authority (water apportionment accord), for example, commonly assume average flows rather than the range of variability. Likewise, floods and water scarcity tend to be located in separate governance/management ‘silos’ with different agencies responsible, and without mechanisms for coordination. An example of possible linkages between them is infrastructure designed for ‘multiple use’, for example, dams, which are built and operated so as to have both water storage and flood control functions.

It is pertinent to note that the construction of water reservoirs, especially dams, which were to be constructed for irrigation and power generation purposes, have been a source of political controversy in Pakistan for many decades, making the issue of dams and reservoirs a political taboo.

Political discussion and consensus vital

With extreme variability in water availability, there is a need for renewed discussion and political consensus around water reservoirs. After repeated floods in Pakistan, this discussion should move from water reservoirs for irrigation or power generation to managing flood waters through reservoirs. The government needs to prioritise the construction of such dams and reservoirs to contain flood losses.

The breaching of dykes is a routine measure to save strategic installations during floods. Yet, breaching at the wrong places, in most cases to save the lands and properties of the influential, is one major politico-economic factor that has been turning floods into human disasters.

Likewise, turning a blind eye to encroachments along rivers and the dumping of solid waste in drainage channels in major cities also increases flood losses and is completely avoidable if building bylaws and city master plans are implemented in letter and spirit.

Climate extremes are entry points to examine how institutional structures, decision-making processes and power relations lead to winners and losers in different societal groups. But the question remains – is there anyone in policy circles to use this entry point to try to reduce the vulnerabilities among excluded and marginalised groups in society who are, unfortunately, made to believe that their suffering is not policy-driven but the will of God?



By Dr Abid Suleri, PRISE co-Principal Investigator and Executive Director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad, Pakistan

A version of this article first appeared in The News on Sunday: The crisis of too much and too little water

Image: Aerial view of flooding in Pakistan/ DfID

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