IT takes a humanitarian crisis to overshadow the political crises that engulf us most of the time. And if the advent of Covid-19 was one such moment where for a moment attention was diverted from our usual bak bak, the floods we are grappling with are another.
Over a decade after the 2010 super floods, Pakistan has been hit by another calamity but this time around nature has been even more wrathful. The rains and destruction have surpassed those of 2010. And if the dire predictions are to be believed, this is simply the beginning.
As government officials and others have pointed out time and again that climate change is at work. The heat came early and was unrelenting for months on end. And even as we were sweltering, there was talk of not just early monsoons but also a heavier than usual one. And heavier it was.
The rains were in some ways just as unpredictable as the early onset of heat; in fact, climate expert Aisha Khan says there were fears of a drought in parts of Balochistan which are now inundated.
But the problem is that climate change is also turning into an excuse. The phrase has become as popular as, say, ‘lockdown’ was two years ago. If anyone needs proof, simply hear talk-show discussions, where the word pops up regularly. It seems to be the excuse we needed to absolve ourselves of responsibility. Climate change, after all, is caused by global decisions and Pakistan, as a poorer and less developed country, is at the receiving end. But this is simply not the entire picture. The rains and their intensity are beyond our control, the havoc they wreak is not.
The rains and their intensity are beyond our control, the havoc they wreak is not.
Let us consider Karachi. The urban flooding in the city has now become a yearly event, which leads to much noise and discussion for a few days before the entire matter is forgotten. The poor planning and regulations, the particularly problematic encroachments are not addressed, except perhaps where the less privileged reside. So the poor will be thrown out in the name of clearing encroachments while upscale housing societies (also encroaching upon drains) remain untouched.
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And there are the obligatory photos of the drains being cleared of rubbish, with little focus on why the plastic bags will not end up there again if there is no comprehensive waste disposal plan. Once the attention diverts, life goes back to the old, bad ways and the next year brings the same chaos. Karachi is just one example of our inability to find solutions; we bring the same approach to climate change and floods.
Back in 2010, when the rains hit, we were made aware of how our growing need for housing (and more) had led to habitats being built close to the riverbeds, which was a major reason for the immense destruction. This was highlighted again and again, as we carried out improper construction in urban centres such as Karachi and even Islamabad. But a decade later, it appears no steps were taken to address the issue.
And now, once again, we speak of hotels built too close to River Swat or the habitation in the kacha. But rest assured, there will be little more than talk once the waters — as well as the images on television screens — recede. For this is an issue linked directly to our population numbers, which has been ignored for decades.
Beyond this, the 2010 floods highlighted the need for advanced planning for coping with climatic disasters. This planning begins with ensuring advance warning — from the technology to predict the weather to the ability to communicate the information to district administrations and vulnerable communities. Back in 2010, in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, districts were not informed in time because a fax machine was out of order.
Even more important is the need for data collection, mapping and advance planning for rescue and relief operations. Mapping of the more vulnerable areas and communities in times of floods and identification of locations the evacuees can be guided or taken towards should be carried out.
But even this would not be enough, if we don’t have an integrated flood management and disaster management system — an exercise which may require far more than an NCOC to be in place during the time of a crisis.
The need for this was highlighted in 2010 also when excessive damage was caused partly due to the absence of an integrated management system.
However, all of this also requires a rehaul of the irrigation departments, which were discussed in detail in the inquiries carried out in Punjab and by the Supreme Court.
According to news reports, the Punjab judicial commission report on the 2010 floods had put the blame heavily on the Punjab irrigation department. In order to understand the logic of this, here is an excerpt from a report titled Malevolent Floods of Pakistan by Naseer Memon: “…after the police, the Irrigation Department is the second highly politicised department. The posting of grade 17 and grade 18 in the department is directly governed by the irrigation minister and the chief minister respectively. This lucrative position is traded Rs1.5 to 2 million.”
In fact, the inquiries had been ordered because of reports of how floodwaters had been diverted to save the lands of the powerful.
The reports had also singled out officials of the irrigation department who were to be held accountable, and a simple Google search reveals how courts continued to be approached about the implementation of these orders for years after the reports came out. Governments are not interested in any reform of the irrigation department.
PS: It may be of interest that the report described as counterproductive the visits of politicians and governments officials to the affected areas. Not just the politicians but also the media should take note before pushing for these visits. We need officials in offices making and implementing policies rather than handing over rations or meeting the survivors. That should be the work of local governments. If we only had effective ones.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2022