The blessing and pain of rain

Updated August 05, 2019

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The annual monsoon season is upon us again with its early effects bringing back haunting memories of past floods. It began this year with torrential rains and urban flooding in the southern parts, including the country’s largest city, Karachi, and areas in nearby Hyderabad.

In Karachi alone, more than 20 precious lives were lost to urban flooding and with electrocution. Key parts of the port city remained without electricity for extended periods, even going beyond 48 hours.

Then followed the usual blame game. Federal ministers blamed the provincial government for misusing funds provided by the centre and turning deaf ears to its advisories regarding the removal of bottlenecks from nullahs, with the provincial government passing the buck to the city government and vice versa.

The effects of rains were, nevertheless, limited to urban areas, mostly because of poor drainage and sewerage system besides ill-planned and unregulated urban development and constructions in the water pathways.

The rains also exposed the vulnerable distribution network of the K-Electric (KE) and Hyderabad Electric Supply Company. As the regulator issued a notice raising question marks on its performance, the private power utility has started the process to declare force majeure, a legal process to protect itself against any penalty or adverse action on grounds that problems emerged due to exogenous factors.

Pakistan has suffered losses worth $19 billion owing to floods between 1947 and 2009 and another $19bn in direct losses since the 2010 floods

The regulator has sent a four-member investigation team to Karachi and Hyderabad “to assess the factual position with regard to the failure of supply and subsequent casualties and other problems caused by recent heavy rains”.

A KE spokesman said the company was still focusing on restoration works and removal of bottlenecks as of Friday and had not yet been able to quantify damages to its own installations. Some areas are still underwater and it is difficult to assess at this stage how many transformers, feeders or other equipment could be repaired or need to be replaced, he said.

Heavy rains were also reported in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan that caused loss of human lives and public properties. The season is still half-way through and it is premature to reach any conclusions.

But given the advance warning signs raised by the weather pundits and federal flood commission as early as March, it would not be unreasonable to find relevant provincial and federal agencies and utilities wanting to take precautions. This is all the more important given the devastations caused by the 2010 heavy floods and then in the following years with varying degrees.

The Ministry of Water Resources and the chief engineering organisation of the federal government had warned the parliamentarians in March that Pakistan could face a ‘major’ to ‘super flood’ during the monsoon season owing to higher than normal snowfall and snow deposits on mountains and other climatic changes this year.

According to the Ministry of Water Resources, Pakistan has suffered losses worth $19 billion due to flooding between 1947 and 2009 and another $19bn direct losses since 2010 floods because of higher population.

The weather forecast even in June and early part of July were in line with the above assessment until the third week of July when the situation changed due to an extraordinary high pressure development in the Arabian Gulf region, acting as a blockage for the flow of cool western winds towards South Asia.

Since the start of monsoon early last month, the National Disaster Management Authority has reported a total of 104 deaths and 83 injured across the country. This is despite the fact that the downpour, fortunately, did not take place continuously as it happened in 2010 which cost about 2,000 lives and disturbed around 20 million people one way or the other. The intensity of rains this time has also not been as grave in Northern parts of the country.

On top of that, there was enough storage capacity in dams following water shortages in early Kharif that helped the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) to conserve maximum river flows in both major dams. The heavy but staggered rainfall in the upper catchments emerged as a divine blessing in disguise.

Yet, 400 households were affected in KP, a few bridges were washed away, roads and water supply to Chitral were blocked and a few powerhouses damaged. In Azad Kashmir, 120 houses, 40 shops and two mosques were damaged. In addition, another 182 houses in other parts of the country were fully or partially damaged.

No major loss has so far been reported to the agriculture sector anywhere in the country except some minor losses after a canal near Hyderabad was damaged. In fact, rains were timely for crops in Sindh and Punjab, according to a senior official at the Ministry Of National Food Security And Research.

According to director operations of Irsa Khalid Idrees Rana, there was no abnormality in rivers. Instead, he wished for a couple of healthy peak flows in river Jhelum so that Mangla dam could be filled before Rabi season. He said the good thing about this year’s rain was that major rainfall systems are coming with reasonable breaks, allowing its drainage and absorption without any damage, unlike back-to-back downpours that cause rapid flooding.

He said Tarbela and Mangla dams still had about 16 feet and 50 feet storage capacity available as of August 2. Total storage at about 9.2 million acre feet was almost 68 per cent of the total capacity. He said Tarbela dam had been filled to 1,534 feet and was now being filled two-feet every day to be followed by one-foot a day after 1,540 feet in line with dam safety standards.

But the situation at Mangla dam was not that encouraging. If there are a few good showers of rain in September as predicted, the water shortage could reduce by 5-7pc, otherwise there are estimates of over 15-17pc shortage.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, August 5th, 2019