Devastating floods are now a yearly phenomenon in Pakistan. This year, the monsoon has brought with it yet another painful episode of floods. Furthermore, torrential rains and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) have claimed a large number of lives, and damaged natural and agricultural resources as well as infrastructure in the country. Since 1990, natural disasters have claimed almost 17.2 million lives and cost around 1.16 per cent to the GDP of Pakistan every year. The 2010 floods alone affected 18 million people and caused direct economic losses worth US$16 billion.1
Flood-affected Dera Ghazi Khan
The PRISE team at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute recently visited Dera Ghazi Khan, a flood-affected district in Punjab province, for a rapid vulnerability assessment of local communities. Dera Ghazi Khan is a semi-arid region located at the junction of all four provinces of Pakistan. This region is particularly vulnerable to floods since it lies between the Indus River (a common point for flooding) and the Sulaiman Mountains (which have a torrent-spate irrigation system that triggers flooding in downhill areas). Cotton, sugarcane and rice are the major crops and the major livelihood sources that local communities depend on. Another distinct feature of the district is that a huge proportion of its population has migrated to the Gulf countries for employment. Hence, foreign remittances are a prominent source of income that support families.
Fortunately, no-one in the affected areas was killed as a result of the recent floods. However, other losses to infrastructure and displacements have been numerous. Some of our on-site observations and discussions with officials in the district administration and local community members revealed important information regarding the vulnerability and resilience of flood-affected communities.
Resilience in rural communities: sustainable measures needed
Local communities often look to the government to provide relief and support, but self-help is also a major factor promoting resilience in villages. As the Indus River is changing its course with the passage of time, a number of encroachments alongside the river bank are now being submerged under water. In order to prevent water from entering the villages, people bring rocks from neighbouring areas to fill and strengthen the muddy river bank. This activity is supervised by the local irrigation department, which keeps track of water flows and provides guidelines on river embankments.
While people are not aware of climate change, they are fully aware that the floods will continue to come and do damage unless adaptation and mitigation measures are taken. They say that limited resources and financial instability make adaptation costly for them. For this, people are unanimous that they don’t want the government to provide relief, but rather that sustainable measures for preventing floods should be taken. “We need dams, and the government should build dams,” demanded the residents of Jhakar Imam village.
Residents of Vidor village appreciated the efforts undertaken by the present government to manage excess water by building weirs in the surrounding areas, which prevented flood water from entering the village. They stressed the need to initiate more projects to manage excess water during the monsoon. Against this backdrop, PRISE research project 7: Water governance in semi-arid lands: political and economic insights for the management of variability and extremes in a changing climate will explore issues and opportunities in water governance before and after climate extremes, and the political economy of investment in water structures.
Reliability of weather forecast data
A major issue facing the district administration during the recent floods was the reliability of weather forecast data. Sharing these concerns, Mubashir Maken, a District Police Officer, pointed out that the police had recently experienced challenges with the early warning system for floods. He added: “A few days back, [the] Met Department asked us for the evacuation of some of the areas in the wake of possible flooding from torrential rains. But there was no flood. Now, people are reluctant to adhere to the guidelines provided under [the] flood warning system. People don’t leave their homes unless they see by themselves the water rushing towards their homes. In some villages, people have developed flood prediction skills. They hear the noise of flood waters through [the] wind and leave their homes if they sense any danger.” He also suggested inter-departmental coordination must be improved to effectively manage extreme situations.
Flood-affected communities, including those in Dera Ghazi Khan, are often forced to move away as a means to adapt. PRISE research project 1 – Migration Futures in Asia and Africa: climate change and climate-resilient economic development – focuses primarily on short term displacement that occurs as a result of climate extremes. A recent PRISE report titled Connecting the dots: Linking climate change with human capital highlights that although short term migration in Pakistan is widely used as an adaptation strategy, it may pose additional challenges to migrants upon their return, including high costs of resettlement and issues of food insecurity.
A local woman from a flood-affected village on the outskirts of Dera Ghazi Khan shared her experience. She said: “We watched water fast approaching our home and my family decided to move to the city. We rented a house, and lived there for one-and-a-half months. When we came back, we still had water in our home. Even today, there are cracks in the ceiling of my room and I often ask my husband to get it repaired lest it falls on us.” Internal migration also carries with it other high costs, especially for people who own domestic animals, which are also a source of income.
On the other hand, out-migration – migration to a foreign country – has a high resilience factor. One or two members of each family in Dera Ghazi Khan usually live abroad, so remittances help people to offset any losses. These families can easily manage to rebuild their brick houses (as opposed to mud houses, which most poor people own) thus making them less vulnerable to climate impacts.
Dera Ghazi Khan is also one of the major study sites for PRISE project 3: Harnessing opportunities for climate-resilient economic development in semi-arid lands: adaptation options in key sectors, which aims to explore the climate impacts on cotton production and adaptation options for cotton actors, and the private sector in particular. Cotton is the major agricultural product of Dera Ghazi Khan and its contribution to cotton production in Punjab is the highest among other semi-arid districts of Punjab. Aleem Shah, a Member of the Punjab Assembly, highlighted the importance of cotton production to the province, and Pakistan. He said: “The floods have become more frequent after 2010. As a result, agricultural land has become extremely vulnerable. [The] cotton crop in particular is affected by the floods.”
Flooding also usually delays the cotton sowing period by 10-15 days, which means a late harvest and less time for sowing the next wheat crop. This has implications for soil health. Flood water accumulation also damages the lower part of cotton crops, which results in low crop output. As an adaptation strategy, people have now started sowing cotton in ridges, which helps flood water to drain from fields. Mr Shah added: “While [the] cotton crop is usually at the mercy of floods, this crop has become expensive in terms of returns on production. Owing to these threats, young farmers are no more interested in agriculture. They prefer to move to cities for sustainable jobs.”
Given the issues that PRISE aims to address, Dera Ghazi Khan serves as a valuable potential case study to conduct multidisciplinary research encompassing climate risks to cotton value chains, migration issues and the pitfalls in water governance at the local level. Changes in climate have exposed the human and economic activities of this district to various vulnerabilities, and existing social structures undermine the resilience efforts undertaken by the local community and local administration.
This district is not only vulnerable to on-set changes in climate, which tend to result in climate extremes, but also to gradual changes in climate – including changes in average temperature. Both are issues which PRISE researchers will explore further. During the next two years we will also analyse the support mechanisms – involving government, the private sector and local communities – that local communities and economic actors and systems in Pakistan will need in order to build and sustain economic growth in districts such as Dera Ghazi Khan.
By Samavia Batool, Researcher and Communications Officer at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad
Images © Sustainable Development Television
Ahmad, N. 2015 (a). Economic losses from disasters. National briefing.
Ahmad, N. 2015 (b).Number of people affected by disaster. National briefing.