Struck by calamity

October 02, 2011

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THIS follows on from mention in my recent column on Karachi’s rain of the “colossal rain damage in the rural areas of Sindh, caused by defectively planned drainage systems”.

Rain-flooding started on Aug 8 affecting 22 out of the 23 districts of the province. Excessive rainfall was recorded at Mirpurkhas (28inches), Badin (25inches) Shaheed Benazirabad (24inches), Umerkot (30inches) and Dadu (28inches), with the maximum of 41 inches at Mithi.

An Internet FAO/Suparco satellite monitoring report reveals: “The gradient of the coastal areas is almost horizontal and movement of water in the flooded area is taking place at a very slow pace. The result is that large rural areas, crops and infrastructure are under water. For the first time after partition, the residents of some of the areas of Thar Desert and its upper reaches had to be evacuated by boats. A large number of farmers lost their livestock on way to safe places, on account of non-availability of fodders and exertion. There is hardly a place in the severely affected area that is free of the hazard of standing water.

“…There was a massive displacement of human beings and livestock. A large number of valuable livestock of the displaced farmers, migrating to safe havens, died on the way because of hunger and exertions. …6,945 settlements comprising 0.66 million houses, 8,000km national and provincial roads (kachha pakka), 127km of railways tracks have been damaged. Several breaches/overflows in protective bunds of the canals have added to inundation in districts Badin, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot, Tando Muhammad Khan.” Crop damage is also extensive.

Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of the poorly designed, maintained and encroached-upon drainage systems, including the Left Bank Outfall Drain (LBOD) project built at a cost of $1bn.

Let us look at the agricultural water system of Sindh. The Indus has provided some degree of irrigation water close to its banks for thousands of years.

To compensate for the inadequate annual rainfall of around 10 inches, in the 19th century the British established in the Indus Basin the world’s largest network of barrages and canals, one with unique technical, institutional and social complexity, to bring around 35 million acres of arid land under cultivation, including about 12.6 million acres in Sindh through the Sukkur (1932), Kotri (1932) and Guddu (1962) barrages.

Today, this contributes to 25 per cent of GDP, 65 per cent of employment and 80 per cent of exports from Pakistan. According to the inter-provincial Water Accord, Sindh has access to 42 per cent of Indus water through three barrages, 14 feeder/main canals, 1,426 branch/distributor/minor canals and 43,000 watercourses.

Irrigated agriculture is a mixed blessing. River water that is spread over land to grow crops seeps into the ground, and, over decades, raises the underground water-table. As this water rises, it brings underground salts up to the surface, leading to water-logging and salinity. Much agricultural land has to be abandoned or its cropping intensity reduced.

In the 1960s, deep tube-wells were installed in the Kotri basin to lower the water-table and remove salts, while many minor drains carried away storm and surface drainage to the sea, or, in the initial stages, into nearby irrigation canals.

In the late 1960s/early 1970s, a 100-mile ‘spinal drain’ was constructed from middle Sindh to the Thar desert and the Rann of Kutch. More detailed studies resulted in the construction over 1987-97 of the LBOD Phase-I (Phase-II to extend into upper Sindh in the future was later abandoned), a supposedly ‘new and improved’ spinal drain for middle Sindh, with wide-ranging secondary drainage and remodelled irrigation canals, and some spare capacity for rain-storm drainage.

The LBOD has been controversial from the start. It never lived up to its promise, it was not ‘owned’ by stakeholders, and is generally believed to have numerous design flaws. It did not help much in drainage during the 1999 cyclone, or the 2003 rain-storm, and is said to have fared even worse this time.

The extent of the gross apathy and incompetence of the governance systems in Sindh can be gauged from the following: it took a month for our president to wade through his hometown before making an international appeal for help (we later learnt that Rs5bn from 2010 floods has not yet been utilised); the national/provincial disaster management authorities are largely invisible; victims avoid pathetic government-run camps; and international donors are sceptical and a huge hoarding by USAID in Karachi displays a free number for whistleblowers who want to give information about aid fraud.

Besides, MPAs have advised affected people to ask for pardon for their sins(!); water-borne diseases (and dengue) are threatening; the president spent two weeks at Bilawal House to personally (but alas, impotently) supervise relief efforts; the chief minister complains helplessly about encroachments on drains; the Supreme Court has begun to suo moto-monitor government relief activities; and counterfeit water purification tablets and medicines are being distributed. The list is endless.

Climate change promises that such catastrophes will become regular events. Sindh needs enhanced administration infrastructure, smarter forecasting/warning systems, improved flood preparedness, superior disaster management and better governance to cope. Do the people not deserve this? But whence do they get it?

arfc@cyber.net.pk