The scenes have become all too familiar: submerged crops; army helicopters dropping food rations; volunteers and soldiers wading through knee-deep water carrying the old and the frail; embankments filled with men, women, children and livestock.
These images have been etched on the collective memory of Pakistanis since the 2010 mega Indus floods deluged a fifth of the country, affecting 21 million people. But today such scenes fail to stir the nation’s compassion. Since then Pakistan has faced deluges every year.
Experts say the intensity and frequency of flood in Pakistan will only increase.
“It’s a whole new ball game and climate trend lines can no longer be followed,” said Pervaiz Amir, a water expert and former member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change. “Rains have become more intense and fall in a shorter period,” and warmer temperatures are leading to faster melting of the Himalayan glaciers, compounding the risks of flooding.
An estimated 715,000 people in Pakistan are affected by floods each year resulting an annual loss of almost 1% to the country’s GDP, which translates into US$2.7 billion. In what is a cascading effect, as many as 2.7 million people could be affected annually by river-floods in Pakistan by 2030, according to the World Resources Institute.
Living with floods
But floods do not have to result in death and destruction, argues Syed Mahmud Nasir, Inspector General of Forests at the Ministry of Climate Change: “If only we can see it as an opportunity and learn to adapt to the annual floods instead of controlling them.”
Protecting forests and natural resources can significantly reduce flood risks, he says. This means developing new laws and implementing existing ones to protect the environment, along with strengthening flood early warning system and restricting development in floodplain zones.
Such measures have been missing from Pakistan’s flood management strategy so far.
At first, Nasir’s new approach to floods was met with incredulity by most legislators: “I was simply told this was beyond their comprehension that I was welcoming floods,” he told thethirdpole.net.
But now that Pakistan’s government is drafting its fourth national flood prevention plan, things may be set to change.
Lessons from the past
Three years back, in 2012, the climate change ministry invited the Ramsar Advisory Mission (RAM), a group of experts under the Ramsar International Convention on Wetlands, to visit the Indus River in Pakistan and submitted a report suggesting a cost effective strategy to use flood water wisely and identify wetlands for restoration.
While agriculture and housing have encroached on large areas of the Indus floodplains – some experts estimate as much as 50% of the basin – there is still plenty more land where flood water from the Indus can be drained. The Ramsar experts identified sites such as the Lal Suhanra National Park as well as those along Guddu and Sukkur barrages in Sindh province.
Well known hydrologist Zaigham Habib agrees that unless forests in the watershed and along rivers are protected the destruction caused by floods will continue.
But land use management is a difficult political issue, Habib points out. “Who wants to make policies which will benefit the province or the nation to their own personal disadvantage and monetary loss?”
Over time, influential politicians and landlords have allowed landless people – and their voter base – to settle and farm on floodplains. Habib gave the example of riverine areas in Sindh, where permanent structures, roads and electricity poles have been built within the flood zones. “These poor people get money and therefore do not mind being relocated every year [when floods destroy their houses]. They return again in more numbers than before,” she said.
The Ramsar experts advised Pakistan to study China’s Yangtze River Basin management plan developed after massive floods in 1998 killed more than 4,000 people and resulted in economic losses of an estimated US$25 billion. “The Chinese learnt a costly lesson that hard engineering solutions often fail to control flood water and that expensive embankments are often ineffective,” said Nasir.
Learning from China
The Yangtze River, the third longest river in the world, flows over 6,300 kilometres through 19 provinces in China. It has always been prone to terrible floods but by the 1990s, the floods had become more frequent and resulting losses even greater. Widespread deforestation and erosion in the upper reaches of the river and shrinking of lakes and wetlands in the central and lower reaches exacerbated the situation. The Chinese government had built dikes to protect agricultural land and when these were breached, the loss of life and property was colossal.
But the 1998 flood proved to be the turning point for China. The authorities began to question the efficacy of engineering solutions and realised the importance of restoring the floodplains and the natural environment. After the floods, the Chinese government introduced its so-called 32 character policy, which aimed to reduce flood threats by working with nature rather than fighting it. They decided to reforest land in the watershed, reclaim floodplains and restore wetlands. But most importantly, they decided there should be a single river water management authority that could take an integrated approach to environment, ecosystem and economy.
Today, 12 of the 19 provinces in the Yangtze River Basin have wetland conservation regulations and more than 140 national wetland parks have been established. The government has also relocated 2.1 million people from floodplains, banned logging and prohibited farming on steep slopes to prevent further erosion.
Back then, the Chinese government was caught up in fire-fighting and finding short term solutions like dike reinforcement and dredging with little focus on more sustainable and long-term strategies to protect against floods.
“But once they realised, there was no looking back,” Nasir said, adding that parliamentarians should visit the Yangtze and see the impact for themselves.
Integrated approach to flood risk management
Pakistan’s government has begun devise its own plan to reduce flood risks.
The National Engineering Services of Pakistan has developed the country’s fourth national flood protection plan (2015-2025), with assistance from the Netherlands based Deltares institute and after almost two years of consultation with various stakeholders.
Now in its final shape, the ten year strategy is sitting with the water and power ministry waiting for officials to breathe life into it.
This plan could mark a major break with Pakistan’s current approach to flood management. For the first time, the national strategy emphasises integrated flood management and ‘soft’ measures – such as mapping floodplains, restoring the watershed and forests upstream.
In addition a River Act (currently being vetted by the law ministry) has been drafted to stop encroachment on floodplains.
The draft plan also envisages the construction of large reservoirs in already identified areas, including the Kalabagh, Diamer Basha, Akhroi, Munda, Chiniot and Kurram Tangi dams, and upgrading the flood early warning system.
Looking back at Pakistan’s past national flood plans, there has been a gradual shift away from building embankments and dikes, to non-structural measures such as institutional reform, developing early warning systems and mapping floodplains under the third national plan (1998-2008).
The most recent draft plan goes a step further and takes a more holistic approach to dealing with floods.
It may put to rest Habib’s grievance that the previous flood protection plans seemed to reflect “scattered knowledge, old school fixed solutions and a lack of integrated approach”.
Who will implement the new flood strategy?
Pakistan’s Federal Flood Commission, under the Water and Power Ministry, is responsible for flood management planning and will oversee the implementation of the new plan. It has members from the various government agencies that are supposed to coordinate the management of the Indus River – including the Water and Power Development Authority, various provincial irrigation departments, the army and provincial environment protection agencies. However, in practice different government bodies tend to work in their own silos.
A judicial tribunal to probe the poor governance and corruption that exacerbated damage caused by the 2010 floods found that the Federal Flood Commission (FFC) had failed to develop an integrated flood management plan for the country.
Unless there is an effective mechanism for cooperation between and within government departments nothing will change, says Nasir. He believes a single authority should oversee all the floodplains, wetlands and forests in the river basin.
“We have the wildlife department that looks at birds only; the forest department that will only see the health of the trees in state-owned forests, the irrigation department that will look at engineering works; the water and power authority that thinks only dams are needed and the disaster management authority just gives out bags of rice and flour during every disaster,” said Nasir.
Whether the new flood strategy will tackle these issues head on will only become clear once the document has been made public and then the real discussion can begin.