Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Misery that was avoidable

September 18, 2014


The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
The writer is a director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

AS reports pour in of the havoc wrought by this season’s flood — of lives lost, property washed away, livestock drowned, crops damaged and infrastructure destroyed — unbearable is the feeling that this is less due to nature’s wrath than human folly. Much of the misery caused to the people could have been avoided.

This despite the fact that some significant steps have been taken over the past few decades to improve the country’s disaster management capacity. Gone are the days when disasters were addressed by a tiny desk in the Cabinet Division and all that was required was waiving of land revenue/irrigation charges for the affected farmers.

Now we have disaster management authorities at the centre and in the provinces. The defence forces, the army in particular, are still largely responsible for rescuing the marooned people. But one notices that Rescue 1122 is also quite active — to the extent its resources permit — though one misses the civil defence and municipal rescue services that used to be active up to the 1960s.

Yet all the departmental expansion and claims to modernisation of disaster management notwithstanding, Pakistan has suffered far greater losses than an efficient husbanding of resources would have permitted.

There is more to water management in Pakistan than inter-provincial squabbles over water theft.

The authorities have an excuse to hide their incompetence — that the onrush of raging waters was unexpected. The meteorologists maintain they had given clear warnings. Even in the absence of warnings, nobody who had seen the floods of 2010 and 2011 could have bought such fiction. After what has been done over decades to block the natural water courses and ancient drains across the land, especially in Punjab, heavy precipitation in the catchments areas, even in the northern parts of the country alone, will cause large-scale flooding.

Nor can anyone underestimate the growth in the size of losses floods are likely to cause. There was a time when farmers, particularly in barani areas, welcomed the annual flooding. The swollen rivers deposited alluvial soil on their barren lands and they could harvest a bumper rabi crop. In those days, farmers lived at a distance from riverbeds and built their mud houses on raised ground.

Now agriculturists have moved closer to the riverbeds, indeed into the riverbeds, and are directly in the path of floodwaters. Likewise, rural people have acquired possessions more valuable than what they had 50 years ago. The device of breaching canal/river embankments to save urban property by accepting the smaller cost to rural communities can no longer be accepted, for the villages are now competing with suburban settlements, if not cities themselves.

Ever since Pakistan’s rivers began to dry up nobody has talked of dredging their beds. The term is mentioned neither in official plans nor in media reports. No responsible authority that would wish to utilise as much land for productive use as possible will ignore the need to dredge riverbeds and reduce their width, and regulate the flow of water through deeper beds and between firm embankments.

While dredging has been ignored, riverbeds have risen to the level of adjacent fields and the smallest increase causes water to spread over large tracts. And embankments have provided some of the juiciest stories of corruption. It was after more earth had been collected for Mahmood Booti Bund than was needed to bury the whole city of Lahore under yards of mud that Lahore had its pukka embankment. Elsewhere, embankments look good only until they are tested by furious waters.

While we have ignored the dangers of floods the world has been moving towards a phase of severe climate change. The entire humankind has been talking for years of changes in rain cycles, melting of polar ice, increase in atmospheric temperatures and rise in sea levels and the threat of large populations going under water. Pakistani policymakers and planners cannot be unaware of these apprehensions — they never overlook the prospects of increase in foreign aid.

Everybody is too busy rescuing marooned communities and extending them relief to notice that no plan is in place to benefit from the large volume of water that is flowing down to the sea. Off and on there has been talk of building storage tanks so that excess rain/floodwater could be used for irrigation in periods of drought.

A serious plan to store floodwater in natural reservoirs along the Indus was made in early 1970s. The idea was to store floodwater over large fields during summer, release it into rivers in winter and sow crops in the reservoir soil. Once a reservoir got silted up another reservoir could be built further downstream.

The scheme was killed by blind politicians. This may not have been the brightest of plans but the way is clear for the country’s civil engineers and hydraulic experts to plan small dams and storage tanks to tame the floodwaters that now only cause death and destruction and harness them for increase in economic prosperity.

What all this means is that there is more to water management in Pakistan than inter-provincial squabbles over water theft and diversion or blocking of water courses. A scientific water conservation and utilisation policy has long been overdue. That should solve a good part of the problem posed by perennial floods, which are now likely to be more frequent phenomena than in the past.

The other part of the problem, disaster management, also requires a well-thought-out master plan. The task is important enough to demand the creation of separate ministries at both the federal and provincial level. An early warning system should be developed by linking the meteorological organisation to local relay services.

Local governments can do flood management and relief better than provincial governments and this is another argument for their immediate revival. Once the mission to save people from the fury of floods is taken up earnestly many people might come forward to join the search for solutions.

All disasters can be managed except for the disaster that an incompetent and insensitive authority always is.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2014