Post-flood needs

Published February 10, 2023
The writer is a hands-on farmer.
The writer is a hands-on farmer.

PAKISTAN suffered from unprecedented rainfall during the 2022 monsoon, which brought with it major disasters in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other catchment areas in the north of Pakistan, as well as Sindh and Balochistan.

The devastation in the north was a result of GLOF (glacial lake outburst flooding), meaning both rainfall and the bursting of glacial lakes combined to unleash unimaginable quantities of water, destroying infrastructure and other vital assets in their wake.

On the other hand, the heavy and sustained downpours in Sindh and Balochistan resulted in what was erroneously described on national and international media as ‘flooding’, when in fact it was the accumulation of rainwater that became stranded due to there being no drainage outflow from the affected areas.

It should be noted that the Indus has sufficient capacity to take in the additional rainwater that had fallen in Sindh and Balochistan. When the irrigation infrastructure, particularly the river embankments on the Indus, were built in the 1930s, the colonial-era planners had been mindful of the Indus’s discharges and had provisioned for the flow of 1.2-1.5 million cusecs of water. Compared to this capacity, the river water flow during the 2022 monsoon was around 650,000 cusecs at Sukkur Barrage, and 850,000 to 875,000 at Kotri Barrage.

Rainwater is meant to flow naturally through riverine areas.

Very few climate change activists or even senior government planning officials have an appreciation of the differences in the topographies of Sindh and Punjab. Punjab has five rivers — the Indus’s tributaries. When the canal system was designed for Punjab, the rivers, being smaller, had not required embankments. When the irrigation system for Sindh was planned and designed, it required putting embankments on the Indus on both the right and left sides, which resulted in two distinct geographies — one being the kaccha or riverine area, and the other being the pucca or canal area. Very few know that rainwater is supposed to flow naturally through riverine areas. They invariably call it a ‘flood’ when it does so, even though this flow is the lifeline of the riverine ecosystem, which includes the famous acacia forests, and the basis of the riverine economy.

The consequence of these differences of topography and infrastructure between Punjab and Sindh is that the former hardly needs surface drainage, while in the latter case, it suffers because its natural drainage has been completely blocked by the river embankments put in place in the 1930s. The point to be made here is that had the 2022 rains fallen in Punjab, the crops may have been damaged but we would not have seen water stranded in the manner that we continue to see in Sindh after five months.

Immediately after the 2022 rains, damage assessments were done under a formal process called the Post Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA). Major lending and donor agencies sprang into action, and the government came up with a fanciful document called the Resilient Recovery, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Framework, or 4RF. The damage assessment process was led by donor agencies in Islamabad and their respective HQs in Washington, Brussels and New York. The 4RF document was careful to avoid fixing any responsibility on past misadventures, like the Left Bank Outfall Drain Project or the Right Bank Outfall Drain Project funded by these agencies. This is in sharp contrast with what local Sindhi media and communities have to say about the damage caused by these two projects.

The 4RF document assessed a total funding need of $16.26 billion, with Sindh needing $11.38bn. The government of Pakistan requ­ested half of the amount in the Geneva conference, and got pledges for over $10bn. Our government still has to submit viable and marketable plans to unlock these pledges, and this is where the real challenges will start for our government babus.

We saw in Geneva that the international community is willing to provide more than what we were asking for if we could come up with a quality plan and policies to enable it. We must not forget that millions of acres of farmland are currently in degraded condition and we will require tens of billions of dollars to make these lands productive again. Pakistan simply has no fiscal space to undertake investments through public-sector funding alone. Good policies will allow a maximum role for the private sector and bring non-debt-creating funding for the irrigation and drainage sector and other vital national infrastructure.

The post-flood rehabilitation in irrigation and drainage infrastructure should be within the provincial irrigation and drainage authorities’ (Pidas) framework. Pidas were introduced in 1997 at the behest of the World Bank and the time has finally come to put Pidas legislation into implementation.

The writer is a hands-on farmer.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2023

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