Poor flood planning

Updated 09 Sep 2014


Villagers gather on higher ground as floodwaters enter in the Hafizabad district in Punjab province on September 8, 2014.— Photo by AFP
Villagers gather on higher ground as floodwaters enter in the Hafizabad district in Punjab province on September 8, 2014.— Photo by AFP

Far from the sound and fury in Islamabad that is agitating many a politician’s mind, the hapless millions watch as vast swathes of land are inundated by the rivers Chenab and Jhelum in flood.

The speed at which the current tragedy has unfolded is astounding; up until just before the weekend, the relevant authorities — while concerned about the levels of rain that the northern parts of the country were receiving — continued to believe that this year, Pakistan would not suffer flooding on a large scale.

And true, the eastern rivers Ravi and Sutlej have not yet shown any signs of being unable to cope with the volume of water.

Also Read: Deadly monsoon: Pakistan's climate change policy remains stagnant

But in central Punjab, the area through which the Jhelum and Chenab wind their way, havoc has been wreaked: many thousands are marooned, dozens upon dozens of settlements and villages inundated, and cattle, livelihoods and lives have been washed away.

With the memory of the catastrophic floods of recent years still fresh, many are wondering why the present calamity was not better predicted, flood warnings were not issued with more urgency, and mitigation measures not undertaken speedily.

District administrations are now swinging ponderously into action and in some areas the army has had to step in to assist.

But surely, prior experience should have meant that Pakistan would now have a system in place to effectively deal with floods.

Also Read: No lessons learnt in flood-hit Pakistan

A few villagers confessed to the media that they did receive warning of rising water levels and that they were asked to evacuate.

But, as they pointed out, would anyone abandon residences and belongings believing that they would be protected or helped by the government and administration?

Surely the rulers can do better than focusing all their attention on the political manoeuvrings taking place in the capital city.

The task immediately at hand is to rescue those who are stranded or marooned, and ensure that adequate food, shelter and medicine are made available. Beyond that, though, there is still time to take measures to mitigate more damage further downstream in Sindh where the waters are headed.

As is usual, prior to the monsoons some routine measures had been taken, such as the desultory silting of a few — but by no means all —canals in the extensive irrigation network. But that has not proved very effective, and may not stave off further damage now.

The relevant sections of the administration and bureaucracy, both at the federal and provincial levels, need to urgently review the situation on the ground and plug in the gaps on a war footing.

Without that, there is risk of downstream areas being trapped in the same situation as the one prevailing in central Punjab.

Further, Pakistan needs to critically review its understanding of what the monsoon weather pattern is evolving into, and revise its preparedness in that context.

Published in Dawn, September 9th , 2014