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Floods kill scores in Pakistan

The devastation caused by heavy rains in the Himalayas over just two days has again shown up the lack of disaster management preparedness in the country
<p>Villagers have travelled to Islamabad to press for better compensation for their land (Photo by Jon Martin)</p>

Villagers have travelled to Islamabad to press for better compensation for their land (Photo by Jon Martin)

A Pakistan Meteorological Department report given to the Indus River Commission – which looks after Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers – said on September 5 that around 0.9 million cusecs (cubic feet per second, equal to over 25,000 cumecs, or cubic metres per second) of additional water was flowing down the Himalayan rivers, according to Ghulam Rasul, Chief Meteorological Officer.

Similar flood damage in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state upstream

The Pakistan Army has asked people on river banks and in low lying areas to vacate their homes, as roofs continue to collapse – the main cause of deaths so far.

Military and civilian relief and rescue workers are evacuating people from the affected areas. A statement by the army’s Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR) department said on September 5 evening that 350 people from different parts of Punjab had been shifted by soldiers.

The weather office forecast that heavy rains followed by floods would continue till Sunday. Rasul told thethirdpole.net that the floods would have a devastating impact in Kashmir, Punjab and Sindh due to lack of preparations and absence of water management strategies.

“We had earlier told the authorities to release water from dams for storage of rain water from monsoon to avoid heavy losses in the downstream catchment areas,” said Rasul.

Pakistan has experienced such heavy rains every year since 2010. It has caused heavy loss to people and to the economy. The 2010 flood – the worst so far – killed over 1,500 people across the country and caused damage worth $10 billion. It also showed up problems in operational decision-making at the field level.

Rasul lamented that due to lack of water reservoirs in the country, the flood waters were not only wasted every year, but also wash away agriculture lands, infrastructure and buildings. He was critical of the government’s apathetic approach towards water management. “The climate change policy was framed back in 2012, which has also suggested construction of dams, but it was never implemented,” he stated, adding that these were political decisions and subsequent governments had succumbed to political pressure over such matters.

Pakistan’s head weatherman also warned that due to the rains, lakes at the snouts of glaciers in the Himalayas and the Karakorum mountains could be burst, causing more flash floods downstream.

Rasul said if the Kalabagh dam in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province is built, Pakistan can not only increase water storage capacity from one month to six, but it can also help reduce floods downstream. He said the country’s two major dams Tarbela and Mangla had their water storage capacities reduced by 34% and 37% respectively due to silting. So Pakistan could only store as much water as would be need for irrigation in just one month.

Mohammad Riaz, another senior official in Pakistan Meteorological Department, said, “We have already warned that floods from Ravi and Sutlej will cause serious damages in Punjab. This time Punjab has experienced a serious blow due to torrential rains. However, this was not due to any water released from dams in India (upstream).”

Ahmed Kamal, senior member of NDMA, said that his department along with the army and local administration had taken steps to evacuate people from low lying areas. “There is need for a pro-active rather than a reactive approach to minimise damages,” he said.

Kamal pointed out that this year no funds had been allocated for the National Disaster Management Plan, though the government had approved the plan for the next ten years. “We had sought funds in the 2014-15 budget for the next five year plan, but no allocation was made for this purpose.”

The NDMA official said flood devastation increases every year due to increasing urban settlement without proper town planning and that was the reason why huge losses were occurring in Punjab.

In a 2013 report, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has also highlighted that the Indus Basin lacks an appropriate flood control and mitigation policy, comprehensive laws and adequate flood-control infrastructure. It says that a large part of the $1.2 billion spent in flood management between 1950 and 2010 was spent on repairing flood damage, developing a flood-forecasting system, and building new levees at various locations. This reactive approach to flood management has led to high recovery costs, and to ad hoc measures that are not sustainable.

According to the ADB report, Pakistan suffered cumulative flood damage worth around $20 billion between 1950 and 2010. The report, Indus Basin Floods: Mechanisms, Impacts and Management, says that Pakistan lacks an integrated water management policy framework and flood control system and there is need to assess technological, institutional and policy options, and develop an integrated water resources management framework and a flood plan.

Akhtar Ali, key author of the ADB report, told thethirdpole.net that intensive rainfall is a natural phenomenon of this region and cannot be changed. “We need to protect human beings and property from devastating impacts of rainfall through better construction standards, appropriate land use planning and with better storm water drainage. The more the vegetation cover on sloping land the better the raindrop impact, and runoff is managed naturally.”

He said Pakistan’s standard operating practices and training of professionals were 50 years out of date. “Now the floodplain has been substantially developed and human settlement and activities of economic development cause major damage even with same flood or lower intensity than it was 50 years back.”

Ali also mentioned that floods bring a huge volume of freshwater that should be treated as an asset rather than a burden. But that “requires a shift in policy by capturing water before it becomes a flood.” He sought a change of mindset from flood control to flood risk management. “Transform irrigation departments into water resource departments dealing with water as a whole (not only irrigation) and review flood infrastructure and its management.”

Pakistan is a water-scarce country in the midst of an energy crisis, and is potentially facing a food crisis as well. It should, therefore, not allow such a precious resource as fresh water to be wasted, says the ADB report.