Pakistani commuters and pedestrians cross a flooded street after heavy monsoon rains in Lahore on July 16, 2019. - In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, officials said at least 23 people were killed after heavy rain triggered flash floods and damaged more than 120 houses and 30 shops, while crippling the water and electricity supplies. (Photo by ARIF ALI / AFP) — AFP or licensors

Why Lahore gets flooded every year — and how to stop it

It's time to prepare the city for the climate crisis.

Updated 09 Aug, 2019 04:43pm

During the day-long rain spell on 16th July, Lahore’s famous Lakshmi Chowk received more than 250 millimetres of rainfall. To put things into perspective, the average rainfall for the whole month of July (mean from 1961-1990) for the city is 202mm.

In 1996, Lahore received 496mm of rain in 36 hours during a monsoon spell, breaking all records in recent memory. The Ravi, which at the time was unhindered on the Indian side, overflowed and most of Lahore flooded.

It was an anomaly that has not been repeated since as the water flows have massively declined in the last two decades. But the Ravi does not need to overflow to have Lahore flooded.

A combination of above-average rainfalls and over-development has made the city regularly witness pluvial flooding (urban flooding caused by excess rainfall and slow drainage flows), for which no cure or mitigation has been devised.

Lahore, probably Pakistan’s most developed metropolis, has become critically vulnerable to pluvial flooding. Year after year (2015, 2018), the rain causes considerable infrastructural damage, while many citizens lose their lives due to related accidents.

Increasing urbanisation and decreasing green spaces.
Increasing urbanisation and decreasing green spaces.

As Lahore’s urban sprawl has grown, the city managers have largely failed to cater to its drainage needs. This simply means that, while housing societies, concrete boulevards, flyovers, underpasses, high-rises and signal-free corridors have popped up all over the city, green spaces and the urban tree canopy has had to bear the brunt of these developments. At the same time, Lahore’s drainage system capacity has also declined.

By the same author: No, India is not responsible for Punjab’s smog. Here’s what’s really happening

The city is served by eight main drains: Central, Lower Mall, Chota Ravi, Alfalah, Gulberg 1 and 2, Edward Road, Mian Mir and Gulshan-i-Ravi. 76 tributary drains are connected to them. Combined, they make up a lengthy network of 180 kilometres, with a theoretical carrying capacity of nearly 6,500 cusecs. But urbanisation and reduction of green spaces has increased the strain on these waterways.

Lahore's vast system of drains and sewers. — Jica
Lahore's vast system of drains and sewers. — Jica

Lahore’s tree cover fell by 72 percent from 12,359 trees in 2007 to just 3,520 in 2015. The main drains are always vulnerable to siltation as the surface runoff deposits large amounts of sediment into them. A Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) study in 2004 revealed that nearly 400,000 cubic metres of sediment deposits had gathered in these drains, which were gradually removed by the Water and Sanitation Authority (Wasa) with assistance from Jica.

The sediment deposits reduce the carrying capacity of the drains, making them less and less effective in times of heavy rainfalls. With reductions in green cover and water absorption into the soil, and increased surface runoff of sediment into the drains, Lahore can no longer deal with the monsoon.

Loss of tree cover in Lahore district. — Punjab Clean Air Action Plan
Loss of tree cover in Lahore district. — Punjab Clean Air Action Plan

Just a few years after the Wasa reclamation project, pluvial floods struck Lahore in 2007 and 2008. They wreaked havoc in the city’s northern quarters, which are also the oldest and most densely populated. Localities including Lakshmi Chowk, Bhatti Gate, Empress Road, Cooper Road and Chaburji were inundated, reminiscent of the 1996 episode.

These episodes have grown more frequent. While cumulative rainfall during monsoon has remained in the normal range, the intensity of single rainfall events has risen. Above-average single rainfalls occurred in Lahore in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2018. Enough meteorological data is present to attribute these anomalies to the global climate crisis.

In a report published by the Pakistan Meteorological Department's Global Change Impact Study Center, researchers have predicted that, with rising temperatures, rainfall events in Lahore during monsoon will become more and more extreme.

Monsoon winds are driven towards high-temperature inlands. The urban heat island effect generated due to Lahore’s accelerated development and urbanisation could become a cause of such extreme events. The urban heat island means that temperatures within the urban part of the district are higher than the peripheral and adjoining rural areas. The resulting differences can concentrate rain clouds over such hot spots.

Related: Cities, climate change and Pakistan’s extended urbanisation

Future-proofing Lahore requires serious changes in the city’s current urbanisation trajectory, as well as capacity building of critical agencies and departments. A master plan for Lahore’s sewerage and drainage systems is needed. But financial cuts — from having a budget of around Rs18bn for Wasa in 2017 down to Rs9bn in 2019 — don't help.

With the reasons for pluvial flooding well understood, city managers must prepare in advance. Sustainable urban development practices, climate-sensitive city planning, capacity building of Wasa and creatively using Lahore's geography can provide reasonable safety nets for people to survive through monsoon spells.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department had predicted a normal to above-normal monsoon for this region well in advance this year, but the government’s plan emerged only a few days ahead of the spell, and was one of disaster management rather than prevention.

In an era of highly developed climate models, the district government and Wasa should prepare beforehand to prevent flooding. The preparations require a sizable mobilisation of government apparatus, and should follow a step-by-step strategy: rehabilitate, respond and reform.

Drainage failure occurs due to siltation and extreme rainfall events. — Illustration by the author
Drainage failure occurs due to siltation and extreme rainfall events. — Illustration by the author

As is evident, Lahore’s entire drainage system needs regular maintenance, requiring advanced machinery such as hydraulic excavators, specialised pumps and trash-raking equipment. If Wasa is empowered and well-resourced, it would be able to mobilise resources once the rain predictions have been made several weeks ahead of time.

Drains, both major and minor, also need to be lined with trees of various native species to create a buffer against outflows and reduce surface runoff.

Read next: Exploring why Karachi's rainwater has nowhere to go

City planners have to rethink urban development as well. Pluvial flooding is not a developing world issue; Rotterdam, after suffering from numerous such episodes, is now dealing with this problem using what is dubbed as water squares. Parks and grounds, with abundant trees and at a lower elevation, allow for absorption of water, and act as temporary reservoirs during storms. An underground reservoir can both hold water during storms and allow it to percolate into the aquifer.

Urban housing can similarly be designed to prevent flooding of roads and houses, with the landscape formulated in a way to provide necessary safeguards.

Changes within existing infrastructure can provide safeguards against flooding. — Illustration by the author
Changes within existing infrastructure can provide safeguards against flooding. — Illustration by the author

These changes can prepare the city for the long-term impacts of the climate crisis, though these are likely not enough, and a thorough review of the city’s current development and growth trajectory is also required.

As another spell of rainfall looms over Lahore, it is the right time for citizens and planners to start preparing for this century.

Are you an urban planner? Share your expertise with us at


Author Image

Dawar Hameed Butt is a policy analyst and communications consultant, interested in governance, public policy and sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @thelahorewala.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (33) Closed

Jul 26, 2019 05:21pm
Excellent article. Educating our masses to clean drains is also important.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 05:35pm
I have seen lahore transform over the time and now its too toxic to live in. The successive governments have absolutely ignored the environment and the residents have to suffer due to lung problems, chronic coughing increased and a range of health problems. The people also want to see the road expand instead of pushing government to make roads cycling friendly. With the arrival of cheap motorbikes people are not using bicycles even for short distances. Most public spaces are not friendly for pedestrian and people prefer to use car or bike wherever they want to go. Our government should look at big cities in europe like Hamburg or Berlin where they have not expanded a single road even with the increase in population. Public prefers to use public transport because getting around in a car is way more difficult.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 05:58pm
No regulatory bodies for Kachi abadis means that there will always be issues of gas and electricity, water and sewerage, lack of proper medical centers, traffic management, lack of parks and recreation, lack of security, and of course lack of tax collection.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 06:02pm
"city managers have largely failed to cater to its drainage needs." That's the crux of the problem. Road building gave the PMLn vote bank as they were ‘visible development’. Drainage system is not visible development for people to see with naked eye and appreciate. Roads damaged by rains create more opportunity to make money for politicians and their favoured contractors. The cycle repeats. This is how they plunder!
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 06:03pm
For Karachi please seek out Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority.
Recommend 0
Azam Kadeer
Jul 26, 2019 06:17pm
kepe clean people need to be educated so they do not through wastage on the street specially plastic bags
Recommend 0
O Hanif
Jul 26, 2019 06:25pm
To resolve remaining Lahore issues please take all the budget of Karachi/Peshawar/Quetta and also London and NY. We might be able to see flood free Lahore in monsoon.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 06:54pm
Draining relatively clean into sewage systems is NOT the solution! We need to find ways to get this water back into the water table. The government should look into permeable pavements which allow rainwater to soak into the ground below. Non-paved green areas should be created all over the city. I was surprised to know that traditional water drainage systems (gharki) is banned in DHA Lahore, even for the purpose of letting rainwater soak
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 07:02pm
Ban the plastic bags, good drainage system and divert all the water to the reservoirs for agricultural purposes. Keep the streets and roads clean and educate people and put heavy fines
Recommend 0
Amjad Durrani Engineer USA
Jul 26, 2019 07:07pm
Recent flooding in Lahore is a result of inadequate & poor maintenance of stormwater drains, improper planning, encroachment on drains, occupation of low lying areas, modification of catchments, & climate change, typically characterized by Increase in flood peaks by 2-8 times; & volumes by 6 times; are mainly caused by 1. Increasing population & encroachment on drainage channels, 2. Increased imperviousness leading to increased runoff as compared to drainage capacity, improper waste disposal resulting in clogged drains, high intensity - high load of runoff.3. changing climate, resulting in extreme events, 4. Inefficiency of integrated flood control implementing agency An integrated solution includes: a. Renovation of existing drainage network b. Regular maintenance of stormwater drains c. Use of porous construction material for pavements d. Putting in place green cover e. Treat drainage as the base of master plans. f. Protecting existing large flood drains & clearing encroachments.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 07:09pm
@O Hanif, money does matter also but most important is the mindset of the people. If people not behaving with responsibility and care for their environment and surroundings then all the money is like zero.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 07:14pm
A good eye-opener for our policymakers - Its a combination of poor planning, poor maintenance, lack of green spaces, and lack of education of public that is mostly responsible for the problem in Lahore and other big cities. Shocked to read that in just eight years tree cover decreased 72 percent. This just shows that our policymakers and planners also need to be educated about the basics.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 07:40pm
Thanks for this article. Just wanted to note that the tree statistics might be referring to acres or some other unit of measurement. I cannot believe that there are only 3520 trees in Lahore. That just seems too little. The paper you cited doesn't give a unit but this article says that it is number of trees . Maybe they can correct this?
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 07:52pm
All we need is more trees,people should be encourged to plant more trees and plants wherever possible.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 08:00pm
it needs doing but will only happen when Pakistanis are made to pay their dues in taxes, nothing will happen without money.
Recommend 0
M. Saeed
Jul 26, 2019 08:07pm
Lack of proper town planning and rampant violations of whatever plan is there by the unscrupulous housing societies in their insatiable greed to mint money, is the cause of frequent flooding. See the ancient town planning of old Lahore. The old city is all free of flooding for being built on raised ground level coupled with a surrounding drainage cum safety from invaders' trench, was the very simple and obvious solution of the old timer's Lahore.
Recommend 0
Ali Xai
Jul 26, 2019 08:09pm
Its Because Khadim Alla fullfilled his promise to Change Lahore into Vienece.
Recommend 0
Gordon D. Walker
Jul 26, 2019 08:16pm
Down the drain! A good thing... Gordon D. Walker Canada
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 08:20pm
@Tallat , a mega project to handle rainfall runoff us is Chicago, it is stated to be a hundred year project, the city is building massive underground tunnels to capture all the rainwater and store but underground. It would require 50-100 billion dollars, plus the fortitude to plan, build and continue it for 3-4 generations. We have difficulty with a 5 year project, and looters would have a field day. Simply cleaning the drains is a nonstarter idea.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 08:43pm
We must invest in rain water harvesting. Also Lahor residents must be given incentives to use more water than necessary to decrease the surplus. For example, doubling the duration of taking bath and more frequent baths should be encouraged. This is also an opportunity to make money as we can sell surplus water to neighboring countries. Avery cheap way to store surplus water is to divert it to the off-shore oil wells. Since no oil was found, these wells would be empty and therefore capable of storing water.
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 09:12pm
Not only we have to clean the drains, we have got to redesign the drainage system of every city that floods, it won’t be cheap, it won’t be easy, but it’ll still be cheaper in the long run, businesses and people won’t suffer, there won’t be sickness spreading from the floods
Recommend 0
Jul 26, 2019 09:57pm
the state of LAHORE is wrong doing of previos thieves governments,if they have spent money on people and state then it would have been alot better,instead these thieves put all the money in their accounts.shame on them.
Recommend 0
Common Man
Jul 26, 2019 10:24pm
Here are a few suggestions to reduce rain water overflow and increase sustainability in Lahore. 1. Stop providing carpeted streets in the City. Instead furnish all streets with permeable brick soling. In this way rain water will be absorbed in earth and increase the underground water level as well as reduce water flow to the drainage system. 2. Change bylaws to make sure that each new house shall have 10-25% soft scaped area. 3. All new housing societies should use separate pipe lines for soil drainage and rain drainage. There shall be collecting ponds of rain water in each society where rain water is collected, stored and used for irrigation of soft scaped areas.
Recommend 0
matiur rahman
Jul 27, 2019 12:15am
So many megaprojects but criminal neglect to improve the existing infrastructure. Our policies lacks coherence . Sheer Optics and not the mitigation of the people suffering is the mind set of our rulers.
Recommend 0
Straight Talk
Jul 27, 2019 04:43am
@Faizan, spot on.
Recommend 0
white noise
Jul 27, 2019 05:08am
Guy should be an urban planner :)
Recommend 0
Jul 27, 2019 08:46am
When the government's core agenda revolves around Afghanistan and Kashmir, no doubt there very little space to think about the problems in Pakistan. No doubt that we will continue to suffer like this yar after year.
Recommend 0
Jul 27, 2019 11:11am
This water must be stored elsewhere and used for crops and other requirements....The water must be diverted to dry regions....
Recommend 0
Jul 27, 2019 12:11pm
Former PM and long time CM also from lahore yet basics are yet to find about urbanization. Problem is that politicians invest in cheap popular projects altogether with corruption ignoring very basics thing which required. Its a shame that such people had not done any basic infrastructure work therefore people suffers.
Recommend 0
Jul 27, 2019 12:42pm
Billions and billion have been spent on cosmetics of Lahore .. but nothing was done regarding drainage, sewage and drinking water .. This is really sad .. It's not the government to be blamed.. it's the citizens themselves who are responsible for this mess..they never raised their voice..they never held anyone accountable Citizen don't know about their rights and they don't even care bout it Govt is surely responsible for it but the opposition and citizens are also to be blamed for being dum,deaf and blind
Recommend 0
Jul 27, 2019 12:45pm
There should be a ban on expansion of Lahore and Karachi and borders should be limited New cities need to be planned .. and the living standards in the old ones should be improved
Recommend 0
Jul 27, 2019 01:58pm
Let it continue to rain please. It brings freshness of life to any place. Remove the factories and mills away from the city and please, please, don't let the buildings go vertical either for houses or offices. It may bring in money but the costs are enormous to the living, which unfortunately they realize after it is too late to move backwards.
Recommend 0
Jul 27, 2019 04:00pm
Excellent article. If we see the british built the water squares (dongi grounds) in model town, samanaabad and in some towns by LDA ( e.g. faisal town, etc). As our ground level water is decreasing water squars are more required while taking appropriate measures against dengue. Rain water should be saved.
Recommend 0