COMMENT: Fighting the recurrent threat of floods

Pakistan has witnessed devastating floods repeatedly in the past 15 years, as a result of a changing climate. This year we are faced with yet another flood, in which several villages and vast areas of irrigated lands were inundated by flood water from the River Chenab, in Punjab, in August this year. Flood water from the river devastated standing crops such as sugar cane and vegetables, and washed away many slum houses in Jhang, Punjab. Affected farmers have been forced to shoulder huge financial losses, as well as losing their homes.

The national Flood Warning Centre reported sharp peaks of very high flood water in the river, with 4,10,000 cusecs (a unit of flow of water equal to one cubic foot per second) of water passing through Khanki and Qadirabad barrages in Gujranwala district, in Punjab, which then flooded the districts of Chiniot and Jhang, in mid-August.   The maximum water flow in the river was 2, 50,000 cusecs at Qadirabad barrage, Punjab province1.

Why does Pakistan continue to neglect flood-prevention and mitigation measures?

This series of flooding is only the first episode of this season and though we should be prepared for the resulting heavy losses to agriculture and the economy of country, we continue to live in ignorance and neglect mitigation measures. Pakistan was the third most vulnerable country to extreme weather events in 2012, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 20142. Pakistan’s Mega flood of 2010 affected 20 million people, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank assessment quoted. 1.6 million homes were destroyed with irrigation losses of 23,600 million rupees3. This was followed by series of floods of 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, all of which hit the country’s economy hard. The 2014 floods caused standing crop losses of 1million acres, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA)4.

 

Ganj Bux, 80, displaced by heavy floods for almost a year, sits on the ground in a camp for flood victims in Sukkur

Heavy toll on agriculture

Floods have a large impact on agriculture as they usually occur from July to September, a peak season for crops, especially cotton which contributes to about 10 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP and 55 per cent to the foreign exchange earnings5. Production of other important crops – such as wheat, sugarcane and maize – are also badly affected by flooding every year.  The situation is likely to deteriorate. Floods, storms, heat waves, and drought are becoming more frequent and extreme as the climate warms, according to experts at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). In many of the world’s cities, even a fraction of an inch of rainfall can lead to flooding and sewage overflows. Flooding on major rivers is expected to become more likely around the world, and coastal communities will be threatened by rising sea levels, according to the NRDC. Severe and prolonged drought already affect water supply and quality. More than a billion people globally will be exposed to flooding and other extreme events as a result of rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns by 2060, warns Christian Aid South Asia6.

Yet improper planning and the absence of flood contingency plans, in every province of Pakistan, mean millions of people continue to suffer. Pakistan’s contingency plans against monsoon flooding have many weaknesses: no uniform source of information is used to base warnings on, some farmers may receive warnings by radio, others from TV. Warnings are also usually only given 2 to 3 hours before flooding takes place, and in some cases, only one hour. This clearly doesn’t give farmers enough time to prepare and make contingency plans. And though Pakistan’s monsoon contingency plan prefers using a flood warning system through SMS (Short Message Service) services on cellphones, some impoverished communities in rural areas don’t own cellphones. There is an urgent need to consult with these communities to see how warnings should be disseminated to them.

Maryam Field Work

In a recent visit to Dera Ghazi Khan, in Punjab, by the PRISE project 7 team, from the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), victims of the 2010 flooding told researchers they were not provided with tents and food. One farmer said: “We moved to [the] railway tracks of district Samina Sadat (union council of Dera Ghazi Khan) where we purchased tents for our survival. Nobody reached us to provide temporary shelters.”

Construction of dykes and dams: Pakistan overshadowed by her neighbours

Another important factor is poor engineering, which also exacerbates flood impacts. The Federal Government needs to allocate budget for the construction of dykes to minimise flood impacts in areas like Dera Ghazi Khan. Women and children are also more vulnerable during floods, therefore flood contingency plans in each province must incorporate a gender responsive approach. Vulnerable communities such as the elderly and women should also be involved in the decision making phase for flood prevention.

Pakistan Humanitarian Aid

There is also a dire need for the construction of storage reservoirs to prevent floods. In the past 60 years Pakistan’s neighbours have constructed dams to prevent flooding and store water. India has 4,500 dams on its rivers and China 22,000 dams. These measures not only minimise the severity of flooding, but also generate electricity, which runs their industries and helps boost their economies7In stark contrast, Pakistan has only 150 dams and reservoirs over the height of 15 metres8. However, proposals for the construction of the Diamer Bhasha dam, on the River Indus, in Gilgit-Baltistan, have yet to be given the green light. If the project goes ahead, the dam could store more than 6,400,000 acre feet of water9.

Improving data sharing practices at provincial, national and international level could also minimise flood risk. We share the Indus Basin with our neighbour India and the historical mistrust between the two countries should be surmounted for data sharing. If this strengthening of the relationship between Pakistan and India takes place, a regional single centre – to provide daily online data about water inflows/outflows – would also be a valuable tool in the challenge to alleviate flooding.

 

By Maryam Shabbir, PRISE Research Assistant

Follow Maryam on Twitter @S_Maryam8

 

Main image: A family tries to escape the floods in northwestern Pakistan, by Abdul Majeed Goraya: Creative Commons License

Image 2: Ganj Bux, 80, displaced by heavy floods at a camp for flood victims in Sukkur, Sindh province, in July 2011, by Tariq Hussain: Creative Commons License

Image 3:  A farmer talks to PRISE researchers about the difficulties he faced during the floods of 2010, by Samavia Batool

Image 4:  Flood relief efforts in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan in September 2010, by DVIDSHUB: Creative Commons License

  1. Pakistan Today, Web Desk, 11 August 2016, Flood inundates several villages, irrigated land in Jhang, Accessed at http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2016/08/11/national/flood-inundates-several-villages-irrigated-land-in-jhang/.
  2. Kreft S., and Eckstein D., November 2013, Global Climate Risk Index 2014, Germanwatch e.V, Accessed at https://germanwatch.org/en/download/8551.pdf.
  3. The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, November 2010, Pakistan Floods 2010 Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment, Accessed at https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/linked-documents/44372-01-pak-oth-02.pdf.
  4. Government of Pakistan, 2014, Pakistan Flood Impact Assessment, Ministry of Finance, Accessed at http://www.finance.gov.pk/survey/chapters_15/Annex_III_flood.pdf
  5. Pakistan.com, n.d. The Role of Cotton in Pakistan, accessed at http://www.pakissan.com/english/allabout/crop/cotton/the.role.of.cotton.in.pakistan.shtml
  6. Doig A. and Ware J., May 2016, Act Now or Pay Later: Protecting a billion people in climate-threatened coastal cities, Christian Aid, Accessed at https://www.christianaid.org.uk/Images/act-now-pay-later-climate-report-may-2016.pdf
  7. Key Informant Interview, Former Chairperson, Water and Power Development Authority, Pakistan
  8. International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), Accessed at http://www.icold-cigb.net/home.asp
  9. Pakistan Construction and Quarry, n.d., Significance and Importance of Pakistan’s Diamer Bhasha Dam, Accessed at http://www.pcq.com.pk/significance-and-importance-of-pakistans-diamer-bhasha-dam/