A flood of wrong moves

Published September 13, 2014
Why different government departments weren't prepared this year, is the question on everyone’s mind. -Photo by AP
Why different government departments weren't prepared this year, is the question on everyone’s mind. -Photo by AP

As widespread flooding devastates large parts of Punjab, the PML-N government is playing the victim and asking Imran Khan and Qadri to postpone the ‘dharna’ and help with the flood relief, while different government departments are busy pointing figures at each other for being caught off guard yet again.

The floods actually have nothing to with Imran Khan and Qadri and everything to do with the PML-N government’s own incompetence. In fact, once the floodwaters recede, as they will inevitably, PML-N needs to sit down with its experts and do some serious introspection.

All over the world, climate change is now recognised as a serious problem; in fact, it is considered one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.

Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, is currently busy inviting heads of state and other global leaders to a special climate summit in New York to be held at the end of September, where he would like to see governments make “bold pledges” to fight climate change.

Explore: Rains, floods kill 280 across Pakistan: NDMA

Recently, UN’s World Meteorological Organisation warned that the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases reached a new high in 2013, driven by rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide.

“We know without any doubt that our climate is changing and our weather is becoming more extreme due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels”, says the WMO.

We, in Pakistan, might not be contributing much to the earth’s warming as our emissions are negligible on a global scale, but we are certainly suffering when it comes to the impacts of climate change.

In Pakistan, the link between global warming and flooding has become more than apparent as the country continues to face devastation year after year during the monsoon season. And scientists tell us that in the topsy-turvy world of climate change, rainy seasons will get rainier, while dry seasons will tend to become drier; floods and droughts will become more frequent.

Earlier this month, most of northeast Pakistan received over 350 mm of rain due to the onset of a high intensity late monsoon weather system, resulting in widespread flooding and deaths.

The government of Punjab has now declared an emergency in 21 districts that are directly hit by flooding in River Jhelum and especially in River Chenab.

Why different government departments weren't prepared this year, is the question on everyone’s mind.

Read on: Disaster compounded

According to climate expert Dr Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, who is the former Director-General (DG) of the Pakistan Meteorological Department and lead author of the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP):

"The Met office’s forecast was on the lower side (for the late monsoon rains) and I think their interpretation of the climate data was questionable... Anyhow, the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) during the monsoon season, whatever the forecast, is to prepare for all contingencies."

Clearly, there were no SOPs in place, even though Pakistan has consistently appeared as one of the top three countries most affected by climate-related disasters since the super floods of 2010.

That should have been a wake up call for any new government coming into power in Pakistan, but instead, when the PML-N government took over the reigns of power in 2013, they decided to demote the country’s federal Ministry of Climate Change to a division and cut its budget while shelving the National Climate Change Policy.

PML-N’s stated focus was on the three Es; Energy, Economy and Extremism, completely ignoring the tremendous climate risk (and consequently, economic risk) Pakistan confronted.

And is it really wise to invest in coal power at a time when most of the world is moving towards clean, renewable energy?

Also read: Who cares about Jhelum-ravaged Jhang?

The PML-N's questionable moves effectively put aside years of work done on climate change by top experts in the country.

Back in 2009, a task force of experts set up by the government to advise them on the impact of climate change in Pakistan told the government:

“It is projected that climate change will increase the variability of the monsoon rains and enhance the frequency and severity of extreme events such as floods and droughts.”

Recommendations called for the “sufficient expansion of large reservoir capacity… and development of capacity to deal with disasters like floods.”

The task force’s report formed the basis of the country’s first National Climate Change Policy. When it was launched last year, some critics had described it as a “wish list”, but the fact remains that it was written after detailed consultations with all provinces and territories, and provided a framework for further action.

According to Dr Chaudhry, the policy has to be implemented immediately: “We need to get everyone involved, we have to adapt and mitigate and we have to start soon."

He points that we cannot blame the current government for not doing anything, as two months ago, they approved a Rs 1.25 billion grant from the Japanese government to install a high-tech flood early warning system (one of the recommendations of the policy). This project will be implemented soon by the Met office to improve their current warning system.

Explore: Modern temples

There's really no excuse for the government to avoid further action. Neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Nepal have all come up with climate change action plans which are being implemented.

What Pakistan really needs are SOPs for disaster-risk reduction right down to the district level, like in Bangladesh where they have FM radios advising people about flooding and people know exactly where to run to for safety.

In fact, climate experts in Bangladesh proudly say they have now “disaster proofed” their country.

In Thailand, there is a link between the Meteorology office and local farmers. Pakistan, too, could benefit by connecting farmers to existing knowledge (about changing weather patterns). There are also insurance schemes in many countries that protect farmers from drought.

The last four years of continuous flooding has had a long-term impact on our farmers’ ability to produce food and they are in need of the most help. We are primarily an agrarian economy and instead of building metro bus systems and flyovers, the PML-N should be investing in our farmers’ future and making Pakistan more resilient to climate change.

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