- The locals say one or two heavy cloudbursts are enough to cause a flash flood. In late July 2010, there were as many as a dozen cloudbursts in a row. There was no modern early warning system in place. This kind of flooding had not happened in this region since 1929.
- However, disaster preparedness in Pakistan has to reach right down to the grassroots level and become mainstream in the process. Also, land-use planning is an area that requires much needed attention.
My last visit to Swat, once known idyllically as the emerald valley, was after massive floods had struck the region around this time in 2010. I remember sitting on the banks of the picturesque Swat River on the roadside, and being told: “See that pile of bricks on the other side? That’s all that remains of Mullah Fazlullah’s madrassa. It was swept away instantly by the floods.”
For years the former princely state of Swat, famous for its fruit orchards, snow-clad mountains, Buddhist stupas and trout-filled rivers, was a popular tourist destination – its hotels were clean and its people well-educated, at least in the main towns.
In 2007, the Taliban began taking control of the region, shutting down hotels and even destroying them along with schools. Anyone who had any means started leaving Swat until the army moved into the area to flush out the militants in May 2009.
The army operation, though bloody, did not last very long and by July 2009, the internally displaced persons of Swat Valley, began to return to their war-torn homes and villages.
I was told that there had been a nexus between the Taliban and the timber mafia which operates in the north of Pakistan. Wherever the Taliban grabbed power (as they did in Swat and Waziristan), protected forests were cut down and exploited with no regard for consequences.
Experts say that without trees and thick biomass to slow down the water flow, the flooding of 2010 took on greater intensity as the water, undeterred by surrounding vegetation, flowed at a faster speed.
When the Swat River burst its banks due to the unprecedented torrential rains that fell over the Hindu Kush and Karakoram, people barely had time to escape from their homes.
The locals say one or two heavy cloudbursts are enough to cause a flash flood. In late July 2010, there were as many as a dozen cloudbursts in a row. There was no modern early warning system in place. This kind of flooding had not happened in this region since 1929.
The Swat River feeds into the Kabul River, which in turn meets the Indus River in Attock on the border with Punjab. The Indus, overflowing with water from the upstream, wreaked havoc in Southern Punjab and all along Sindh where it flattens out in the plains.
“What happened was that a cooler, westerly system over the north of the country interacted with hot, moisture laden winds from the east and caused a series of cloudbursts”, explained Dr Qamrul Zaman Chaudhry, who was the head of the Pakistan Meteorological Department office in Islamabad when I interviewed him back in 2010. “Extreme weather events are on the rise and their intensity is also increasing”, he had warned.
Dr Chaudhry, after leaving the Met office later that year, went on to author Pakistan’s National Climate Change Policy that was launched in 2013.
The policy was shelved for a while, and now needs to be urgently revised and updated. There are proposals to fast track it under the new Climate Change Act 2016 which was passed by the Senate in March this year.
Neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, India and Nepal have in the meantime all come up with climate change action plans that are already being implemented.
In Bangladesh for example, they have FM radios advising people about flooding and people know exactly where to run to for safety – even a school child knows what climate change is and what can be done about it.
Currently, Pakistan has one of the lowest forest covers in the region. I was recently shocked to learn that according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Global Forests Resources Assessment 2015, Pakistan’s forest cover is an abysmal 1.9% (percentage of land cover). Much of this forest cover (around 40%) is located in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which has 17% of its land covered by natural forests.
The Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project in KP (including Swat) involving large scale afforestation is a positive step implemented by the provincial government to prevent future floods.
However, disaster preparedness in Pakistan has to reach right down to the grassroots level and become mainstream in the process. Also, land-use planning is an area that requires much needed attention.
The disaster was made worse by the rapid growth in Pakistan’s population and the struggle to find land for housing. People exposed themselves to great danger by building homes in dry riverbeds or too close to the rivers.
The widespread destruction in the country, from the mountains to the coastline, showed our extreme vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change and drew international attention.
The floods were described as “the worst natural disaster the United Nations has responded to in its 65-year history”, by then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. At one point, approximately one fifth of Pakistan’s total land area was underwater due to the flooding.
The nation’s worst calamity ruined roads, bridges, schools, health clinics, electricity and communications in Swat and affected many other districts. After the initial rescue and relief work done by the army, NGOs and the government focused on reviving Swat’s economy and rebuilding hotels, schools and other infrastructure lost to war and floods.
Hotels in Swat finally started re-opening their doors in 2011 to receive tourists in the summer season. This year a record number of tourists went to Swat, and the hotels were overbooked.
I have not been back to Swat for a few years now, but local resident Ehsanullah, who is a board member of the Sarhad Rural Support Programme told me recently: “I would say normalcy has returned to Swat. Most of the infrastructure has been rebuilt – even the hotels right next to the River Swat! Call it greed or short memory, but people have rebuilt the hotels that were swept away by the floods of 2010. In fact, people have forgotten about the floods and the militancy to a large extent.”
Everyone hopes that floods on the scale of 2010 never hit Pakistan again. Unfortunately, the climate change experts warn us otherwise.
How have you been affected by the Swat flooding or any other natural disaster that hit Pakistan? Share your story with us at email@example.com