IT did not have to be this way. This is the fourth major flood to have hit Pakistan since 2010, and in each case the cause has been heavy rains.
The first flood alert issued this year by the Pakistan Meteorological Department was on the morning of Sept 3, more than three days before the arrival of the flood peak at the Marala headworks on the Chenab, where the river enters Pakistan from India.
That same evening, a meeting was convened by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to discuss flood preparation plans, with almost the entire government machinery present, including the chief secretary. But the Federal Flood Commission seems to have taken its time waking up to the flood alert. Its first record of a meeting since the alert was issued is on Sept 6, by which point the flood peak of 900,000 cusecs was only hours away from the Marala headworks.
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Moreover, a report published in this paper detailed how the various government bodies, led by the FFC, preferred bickering over turf when they should have been coordinating their response. It appears the country has learned no major lessons from the previous three flood episodes, preferring to act only once disaster has struck.
More distressing is the lack of effort going into flood forecasting. Our forecasting models are designed to anticipate the arrival of rains more for crop management than for flood warning. The Met Department did issue an advisory of a low pressure system forming over Rajasthan as early as Aug 28, but its technology and models could only warn of “scattered thundershowers with heavy to very heavy [rain]falls in isolated places in the upper catchments of rivers Ravi, Sutlej and Chenab” as late as Sept 2.
The flood alert was issued the following day, which turned into a flood warning on Sept 4, only two days before the flood peak arrived. Yet today, meteorological models exist that can provide up to 10 days of flood warning with very high probability. Bangladesh has been using such a system successfully for almost a decade now, which has on two occasions given accurate forecasts of floods 10 days in advance.
Yet more troubling are the things being said in some places. Describing the floods as an “Indian water bomb” plumbs the lowest depths of ignorance. Instead of pointing fingers at India, what is needed is a serious approach for sharing of meteorological and hydrological data to enable more accurate forecasting.
Better coordination amongst government departments is also critical. Currently, it is not clear who has the responsibility to coordinate the response once a flood alert has been issued. The Met Department ought to take better advantage of the latest scientific knowhow to upgrade its forecasting capabilities. With this being the fourth flood in recent years, it’s a travesty that none of this has yet been done.
Published in Dawn, September 20th , 2014