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Sutlej River floods in Pakistan worsened by catalogue of issues

The devastating recent floods in Pakistan’s Punjab province were partially exacerbated by climate change, but local experts tell a broader story implicating the Indus Waters Treaty and flood plain encroachments
<p>Satellite imagery from 19 August 2023 captures the Sutlej River spreading far beyond its banks and across the Punjab region, into Pakistan above and India below (Image: <a href="https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/about/wanmei-liang">Wanmei Liang</a> / USGS via <a href="https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/151754/flooding-along-the-sutlej-river-in-punjab">NASA Earth Observatory</a>)</p>

Satellite imagery from 19 August 2023 captures the Sutlej River spreading far beyond its banks and across the Punjab region, into Pakistan above and India below (Image: Wanmei Liang / USGS via NASA Earth Observatory)

Villagers are slowly returning to the small village of Haku Wala in Pakistan’s Punjab province, following devastating floods that forced thousands to flee in late August. By 11 September, resident and retired air force officer Saeed Akhtar is back at home, but he is still surrounded by three feet of stagnant flood water. “Fish have become abundant here since the floods,” he says, pointing to one small positive outcome. Two young boys, their pants rolled up to their knees, wade past in the ankle-deep water with nets in hand.

From where Akhtar sits, the border fence between India and Pakistan is visible in the distance. It is an unwavering reminder not only of the divide between the two countries, but also the division of the rivers that form the Indus Basin. It was from India and down the Sutlej River that the floodwaters arrived here.

Living close to the border has never been easy, says Akhtar, and comes with a host of challenges for his tiny community of about 70 houses. For example, Haku Wala is only a 20-minute drive outside of Kasur city, yet there is no cell phone signal here.

The presence of the river, and a history of unexpected floods, means that Haku Wala is defined by its bund (a raised embankment). Bricks-and-mortar houses have proliferated atop the bund and stretch beyond it, but in September these were joined by makeshift tents housing flood victims.

Flood warnings not matched by aid efforts

The 1,400km-long Sutlej is the longest tributary of the Indus River, which originates among the Himalayas in southwestern Tibet, meanders its way through the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, before eventually crossing into Pakistan’s Punjab province. Heavy rains in July and August caused three eastern rivers of the Indus Basin – the Sutlej, Chenab and Beas – to flood. The control of these rivers is, according to the Indus Waters Treaty, allotted to India.

India’s short bursts of torrential rain this July and August is part of a growing number of heavy rainfall days across the Himalayan region, a trend attributed to climate change. India opened its barrages, the water flowed into Pakistan and floods ensued. This impacted 450 Pakistani villages and led to the rescue and/or evacuation of more than 530,000 people between 17 August and 10 September, according to the Punjab Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA). 

The river reached an extremely high level in Ganda Singh Wala, a border town in Pakistan’s Kasur district, where the flow of water was recorded as 278,000 cusecs, the highest in 35 years. That is still significantly lower than during floods in 1988 (399,453 cusecs) but, according to Akhtar, the devastation has been greater this time. He said that waters in the 1988 flood receded within about a week, but this time they endured from early July until the end of August.

Another difference between 1988 and now is the establishment of early warnings. On 10 July, when India released water flowing at 70,000 cusecs upstream of Pakistan, the Punjab PDMA was already posting warnings on social media. Government officials, including the district commissioner (the lead administrative officer), conducted regular rounds of villages they thought would be impacted and urged people to find higher ground.

“They would come and tell us to leave our houses,” Akhtar says, “but where were we supposed to go? They wouldn’t tell us where we should go.”

Kausar Bibi, a landless labourer from the nearby village of Dhoop Sari, tells The Third Pole the same thing: “We can go sit on the bund, but what do we do there?”

Bibi has also lost any chance for employment following these floods, because most of the crops in the area have been washed away. As of 11 September, she was still living on the bund, in a tent donated by the PDMA. She spends her days driving around on a motorcycle with her son, ID card in hand, looking for emergency relief supplies.

As the flood waters recede, so does the government aid. “Now the government also wants us to return the tent they gave to us to live in. What should I do? How should I eat?” wonders Bibi.

Why are the Sutlej floods getting worse?

As a high-flowing river, floods along the Sutlej are nothing new. According to Federal Flood Commission records, its highest-ever water flow is 598,872 cusecs, recorded in 1955 at the Sulemanki barrage near the Indian border.

Since its mid-century peak, flows have generally reduced in the Sutlej. The river’s peak flow has only exceeded the low-level flood benchmark of 70,000 cusecs five times since 1995. Even this year’s floods would only be categorised as a medium-level flood.

According to irrigation and water management consultant Umer Karim, studying the level and flow of the Sutlej cannot reveal the full picture. The river’s flood plains and even its main bed have been encroached upon, which now prevents the natural recession of the flood waters.

“The Sutlej has a large riverbed,” explains Karim, “and as more water would flow into the river, it would spread out … which would help reduce some of the pressure and velocity of the water.” He says this pattern has been disrupted by human settlement encroachments.

Karim concedes that the high level of rainfall in India this year can be attributed to climate change, but he says year-round cultivation of the Sutlej’s floodplain and river bed has done more to exacerbate these floods.

According to Hassan Abbas, part of the problem lies in the Indus Waters Treaty, which allows India to divert water from the Sutlej to other rivers. “Sutlej [had naturally] created a sufficiently large bed to contain such a flood,” explains Abbas, who holds a PhD in hydrology and water resources. “When you shut the river from the top, people at the lower end become complacent. Some of these people have never seen the river flow [as it used to].” 

A hydropower dam on the banks of a river
The Indus Waters Treaty allows for upstream diversions of the Sutlej River by India, like the Karcham Wangtoo hydropower plant in Himachal Pradesh, its northernmost state. During periods of heavy rainfall, dams such as this release water, which may create catastrophes downstream. (Image: Rupendra Rawat / Alamy)

Abbas says both the 1988 and 2023 Sutlej floods can be blamed on dam construction: “When this level of manipulation has happened to this river, will you blame it on climate change? No, it is not: the moment their dams fill, [Indian dam operators] release water, according to the Indus Water Treaty.”

Abbas also says there is a lack of proper flood management in Pakistan: “Do the people know where to go, if there is a flood warning? Flood planning needs to be detailed and the communities living along these rivers need to be informed properly.” 

Managing future floods

The natural course of the Sutlej has been significantly impeded, which Abbas says does not bode well for the future. Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change – increasing temperatures, glacial melts and monsoon rainfall – also make flooding more likely. According to Abbas, the best way to prepare is to revitalise wetlands along the riverbed, because they naturally absorb flood waters.

According to Karim however, the first step in mitigating the severity of the Sutlej’s floods should be to remove the farming encroachments from its bed. “The population has grown and people have become greedy,” he says.

Malik Ahmad Khan acknowledges that cultivation is spreading in and alongside the flood zone, but the former member of Kasur’s provincial assembly also stresses the complexities of the situation: “It is correct that there is cultivation, but people also own land that sometimes falls within the river.” Khan says the river changes over time, sometimes revealing property previously under water, but at other times and in other places, flooding property on a long-term basis.

The government cannot stop people from cultivating or building on this land
Abdul Majeed Sheikh, land and revenue department officer for Khudian town

Khan tells The Third Pole that the only way the government could enforce its writ would be to acquire the land from its owners – a complicated and contentious process. Abdul Majeed Sheikh, a tehsildar (land and revenue department officer) for the nearby town of Khudian, elaborates: “This land is privately owned and has been for centuries … the government cannot stop people from cultivating or building on this land.”

Sheikh says flood zone cultivation is a common practice, acknowledged and accepted by government officials: “People who do so know that there is always a risk that they may lose it to a flood.”

After Pakistan’s 2010 floods, which became one of the country’s worst humanitarian disasters, the government extensively mapped its main flood zones and created the National Flood Protection Plan IV. The latter points to many of the issues discussed in this article, particularly the encroachment of settlements onto floodplains, which doubled between 1998 and 2014.

In 2016, Punjab’s government passed The Punjab Flood Plain Regulation Act. While its laws do not ban construction within flood zones, it did create an approval mechanism. Unfortunately, knowledge of this law – not to mention implementation – appears limited: The Third Pole spoke to the district commissioner and a local tehsildar, neither of whom were unaware of its existence.

Comments (1)

Requires one correction. Three Eastern rivers, referred in IWT, are Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej and not Chenab, Beas, and Sutlej as mentioned in this article.
Moreover, construction of dams upstream don’t increase the chances of floods downstream. In case of filling the dams, only that much water will be released down stream which, even in case of no dam, would have flowed downstream. Dams at least provide the lower riparian a time cushion to make prepartion for the anticipated flood.

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