What went wrong at Taunsa

Published August 13, 2010

It has been 10 days when water burst out of the barrage and water is still gushing at a speed enough to destroy everything. With every passing day, the cost of misjudging the results of left bank breach is multiplying. — Photo by Online
LAHORE The combination of human error of judgment, design fault and extraordinary flood in the Indus at Taunsa Barrage spelled disaster for Muzaffargarh district - displacing over one million people, destroying crops over two million acres and jeopardising over $12 billion energy infrastructure.

To make the matter worse, the cost is still counting; the relentless water continues to inundate new areas on a daily basis, multiplying the cost of the floods.

On Wednesday, it was flooding areas as deep as tehsil of Jatio and Alipur. With water still flowing at 741,000 cusecs at the barrage, the entire area now looks like a live river, destroying everything in its way.

According to irrigation experts, though a combination of factors caused the tragedy, the most critical part must be assigned to the design of the barrage. It did not have breaching outlets on the right bank, which are the “most critical options” for flood management.

Because the natural soil slope is from right to left, any water released on right bank returns once flood recedes. Since left banks are natural slope, water released on this side does not return to river even when floods wear out.

That's why, right banks are scarcely populated and left banks the world over are considered safer, both for human residences and financial and infrastructural investments.

Even worse is the fact that since there was no breaching options on the right side, there were no critical gauges installed either, ringing the alarm bells. The responsibility of such a decision was thus shifted to humans - irrigation engineers, barrage monitors and the district administration - rather than technology.

On their part, the humans involved in monitoring and management waited till the last critical moment as flood flow passed and the weakest design point of the barrage was exposed. The option of blasting river banks upstream was never exercised because no one from the local irrigation and district management took the initiative and responsibility, or did not properly judge the breach on the left bank.

It has been 10 days when water burst out of the barrage and water is still gushing at a speed enough to destroy everything. With every passing day, the cost of misjudging the results of left bank breach is multiplying.

To make the matter worse, the water will not return to river. Rather, it will remain in cities, towns and agriculture lands till its natural seepage, which may take many more weeks.

“Given the style of governance in the country, professionals hardly risk such critical decisions like breaching a river and flooding an area and people,” says Chaudhry Mazhar Ali, an irrigation expert from Lahore. It is not to justify their error of judgment, but only to underline the way the professionals now approach their work. Had the right bank been breached, the miseries on the left side could have been lessened substantially and people could have been debating whether the breach was necessary, and those recommending it could have been on the spot. “Since no one trusts the professionals any more, their reluctance to take such critical decisions is at least understandable, if not defendable,” he claimed.

“In the last 100 years, the maximum flow at Taunsa Barrage has been recorded at 831,000 cusecs,” says Israr Ahmad, additional secretary at the Punjab Irrigation Department. The barrages are normally designed at 100 years history. The barrage could take 100,000 cusecs additional flow, which is more than recorded in the last 300 years.

Apart from the “uncertain human mistake,” the flood was extraordinary. There was still four feet free-board remaining when the left marginal bund (LMB) collapsed, releasing a huge water wave in the adjoining areas.

About plugging the breach, he said effort could only be made once water flow fell below 300,000 cusecs. “But it has not happened since the breach on Aug 2. Even on Wednesday, the flow is around 741,000 cusecs and, if the metrological forecast is something to go by, it may take another few days for flow to drop,” he feared.

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