Urban flood risk

Published August 1, 2021
The writer is a director at the Centre for Disaster Management, and teaches disaster management at the University of Management and Technology.
The writer is a director at the Centre for Disaster Management, and teaches disaster management at the University of Management and Technology.

THE alarming visuals that have come out of the recent deadly flooding in Islamabad’s Sector E-11 have sparked a public discourse on whether or not this was a ‘natural disaster’. The authorities promptly blamed ‘cloudburst’ for the disaster, adding a little known terminology to the public discourse. Many among the internet-using public connected the flooding in Islamabad with the floods wreaking havoc in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, citing climate change as the common denominator.

I believe it is important to have a public discourse on climate change and its devastating impacts which increase disaster risk and can have induced effects such as heavy localised rainfall or ‘cloudbursts’. But irrespective of the role of climate change in this extreme weather, we must be careful not to attribute the disaster solely to it. In fact, it is unfair to brush it off as another ‘natural’ disaster where the focus of the public is diverted to response and relief rather than poor governance and the human choices that caused the disaster.

This confused messaging has caused a significant portion of the population to believe that disasters are a manifestation of the wrath of the heavens and that there is little that can be done to prevent them. Countless academicians and researchers have pointed out the term ‘natural disaster’ is misleading as it shifts responsibility from human choices to the forces of nature. Disaster risk is a product of ‘hazard’ and ‘vulnerability’. In the case of the Islamabad flooding, the former would be an extreme hydrometeorological phenomenon. It is likely that this phenomenon was exacerbated by climate change.

However, hazard alone would not have turned into a disaster had it not intersected conditions of vulnerability and exposure, which encompass all physical, socioeconomic and environmental factors that increase our susceptibility to hazards. Vulnerability is perpetuated by decades of poor governance and choices which are a key driver of disaster risk. For the residents of E-11, some part of their vulnerability was created by risk-insensitive land-use planning and flood zonation, by constricting and creating bottlenecks in natural waterways, and by ill-designed drainage structures clogged by solid waste.

Flood risk has been exacerbated by unchecked encroachments.

Such conditions are not uncommon in urban areas across Pakistan, even in Islamabad. As the flood ravaged parts of the capital, the students of the Capital University of Science and Technology shared alarming videos and photographs on social media as their entire campus appeared surrounded by deep turbid waters. Before someone says ‘natural disaster’, it must be mentioned that the entire campus is constructed on the floodplains of the Soan River, only a few feet away from its main channel.

Flooding in Abbottabad earlier last month, where life was mostly disrupted, once again points to decades of poor planning and governance shortcomings in our urban areas. Flood risk was exacerbated over the years not only by unchecked encroachments on waterways but also by diminishing green permeable surfaces that were replaced with concrete structures and impermeable paved surfaces. Taking measures such as increasing green infrastructure, and implementing adequate land-use planning and regulation not only in the city but also in the upstream catchment areas of urban streams could significantly reduce the risk of urban flooding. Another challenge that remains unaddressed is assigning responsibility to enforce the existing regulations — especially as there are a plethora of municipality corporations, cantonment boards and highway authorities, among other federal, provincial and local authorities.

Considering the toll disasters take on life and development outcomes, preventing them and reducing disaster risk appear to be common sense. However, trapped somewhere between the immediacy of the disaster response and the allure of expensive development projects, ‘disaster-risk reduction’ fails to draw sustained attention or policy and political commitment. Many of our political figures prefer to be seen as saviours as they hand out rations during disaster-relief activities, an exercise that takes precedence over building storm drainage networks and green infrastructure, and passing legislation to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Integrating disaster-risk reduction into sectoral policy and the national agenda seems to be piecemeal and lacks concerted efforts. Similarly, authorities constitutionally mandated to work in all phases of disaster management appear to limit their role to reactive disaster response, relief and rehabilitation, neglecting proactive measures such as disaster-risk reduction. People should not have to become homeless, or lose their lives or livelihoods, because no one is paying attention.

The writer is a director at the Centre for Disaster Management, and teaches disaster management at the University of Management and Technology.

Twitter: @ahmdaligul

Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2021

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