The Flood Disaster
Causes and Management
The death toll has, so far, crossed the grim milestone of 1400 and it is likely to rise further. Around 33 million people – one out of every seven Pakistanis – are sleeping outside, in the open sky. Close to one million homes have been destroyed. Roads, railroads, power transmission lines, gas transmission lines, irrigation systems, schools, hospitals, dams and other critical infrastructure have been obliterated as more than 118 districts of Pakistan are inundated with floodwater. An estimated 37 percent of Pakistanis have been displaced and are desperately waiting for the flood, water and shelter. Around 800,000 heads of livestock have perished. Standing crops on around 3.5 million acres of land have washed away, leaving nothing but ruins and devastation. The initial, provisional assessment of the immediate damage has been estimated conservatively at $30 billion which is likely to reduce Pakistan’s GDP by two percent. Pakistan is now facing the very frightening prospect of food insecurity due to the washing away of more than 70 percent of staple crops. The trail of destruction left by the monstrous flood would continue to haunt Pakistan’s economy, infrastructure and communities for years to come. But the pertinent question here is: what has happened this year? Monsoon has been an annual phenomenon for thousands of years here in South Asia, why this regular and critical rainfall pattern has turned so violent and devastating this time? The answer involves many factors. Some are discussed hereunder.
Finding the underlying cause of this “Monsoon on Steroid” is a complex job. There are multiple factors behind this unprecedented calamity. Some have triggered this and others increased its intensity and devastation. Climate change, though, can be termed as one of the chief reasons behind the 2022 monster monsoon flood.
Climate change and the resultant global warming are leading to stronger monsoons with higher precipitation. An increased temperature enhances the water-holding capacity of the clouds which, in return, leads to increased precipitation. In a briefing to UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, Maj. Gen. Zafar Iqbal, the Coordinator of the National Flood Response and Coordination Center (NFRCC), told that Pakistan received 518 percent more rainfall than usual during the current monsoon season. We have witnessed the wettest July and August in the last 62 years. There are also reports that the monsoon is also shifting towards the south of the country, with its increasing intensity. Pakistan usually receives 3 to 4 cycles of monsoon during the July-August period, but, this year, we received more than 8 intense spells of rainfall that caused torrential rains in Sindh, urban flooding, flash floods in South Punjab and lower Sindh, and glacial floods in the country’s northern areas. The ever-increasing global temperature is also hitting Pakistan hard. We have the third largest ice mass in the world after the South and North Poles. The temperature rise is causing the melting and receding of these glaciers which, directly or directly, contributed to the humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Another point worth mentioning here is that Pakistan is extremely vulnerable to the slightest change in climatic patterns. Since 2010, the average global temperature has increased by 1.10°C. In other words, a mere increase of 0.10°C has caused an almost-existential threat for the country and it is scary to imagine what will happen to us when the world would be able to cap temperature at 1.5°C, the target stipulated by the Paris Climate Accord. Pakistan’s ongoing tragedy has shown the world that even the most-cherished temperature goal can cause devastation for some countries. There is no denying that climate change has started to take a heavy toll in terms of human and economic losses.
Pakistan’s physiography is also a contributing factor behind the frequent occurrence of floods. Since 1947, Pakistan has witnessed more than 20 major floods which proved very costly for the economy and life and property. Indus Basin is home to the Indus River and its tributaries which provide a natural channel for draining overflow caused by the monsoon. The Indus Basin has developed in such a way that it does not support free and quick drainage of the floodwater, and neither can it absorb surplus runoff. This is evident from the fact that areas in Sindh and Punjab remained inundated for three to four months in the wake of the 2010 flood. And this time, it will take 3 to 6 months for floodwater to recede in many hardest-hit areas. So, natural physio-geography adds to the vulnerability of Pakistan.
Though climate change is the chief factor behind the occurrence of this tragedy, we cannot, and should not, place our fingers only on it. Unlike heatwaves, glacial melts and droughts, which are certainly the outcomes of changing weather patterns and unpredictability in climate change, impacts of floods can be managed or mitigated to a large extent provided that we undertake prompt preemptive measures. Most of the losses incurred by the flood are the outcome of poor planning and governance. In this regard, poor development planning deserves some attention.
The relationship between human settlements in riverine beds, shoulders and banks and flood intensity is positively co-related. The data analysis of heavy floods in the past – those in 1995, 2003, 2007, 2010 – and the one of 2022, indicates that the frequency and intensity of floods multiply with increase in human activities in the riverbed and adjacent areas. The human settlements obstruct the natural flow of water and it leads to the washing away of properties that come in the way. The government has done nothing to discourage this steady encroachment of riverine paths. Instead, it provided public infrastructure and amenities under the name of tourism promotion which eventually proved too costly to bear. Hence, weak governance and criminal negligence on the part of state machinery did contribute to the overall vulnerability of the local communities and areas.
Deforestation has also been a major contributor to flood calamity. The riverine, or Bela, forests stabilize the natural levees by binding the soil together. But the growing population and concomitant needs for fuel wood have almost wiped out these forests from the upper and lower Indus Basin. Corruption and mismanagement on the part of provincial forest departments can also be blamed for the loss of this natural safeguard against floods. Deforestation increases the frequency and intensity of floods because erosion adds siltation and increases the level of riverbeds, which, in turn, decreases the water-holding capacity of rivers.
Apart from these structural constraints, the federal and provincial governments did nothing to take preparatory and mitigation measures. Contrary to the cases of earthquakes or other natural disasters, well-tested early warning systems are now available that can accurately predict the level and intensity of an upcoming flood. Many powerful computer programs can forecast future rainfall and map those areas that may be affected by floods. Pakistan has many such public and private institutions that have been counting on these programs for accurately forecasting and issuing warnings. Pakistan’s metrological department had already warned the government well before the start of the 2022 monsoon season about the unprecedented rainfall and resultant flood that might eclipse the 2010 flood in intensity and scale. Pakistan’s federal minister for climate change, Sherry Rahman, also warned on 19 June 2022 about the extraordinary rainfall that might end up in a monster flood. But nothing was done. Two precious months were wasted. There are many areas where both federal and provincial governments failed conspicuously to take action. For example, the institutions could have mapped the vulnerable localities in the light of the 2010 flood and urged people through SMS-based communication to evacuate voluntarily from flood-prone areas. It could have built makeshift arrangements – for instance, the NHA roads or other government buildings – for sheltering people and livestock. But they got out of their deep slumber only after the arrival of the floodwater. The NDMA and PDMAs should have arranged rescue-and-relief equipment including boats, power units, mobile field hospitals, dispensaries and machinery in those areas which were under dire warning. There could have been some arrangements to protect sources of potable water from floodwater so that people could not have faced a shortage of drinking water. Data from satellite and of past floods could have been used to remove obstacles like illegal constructions and roads that might fall along the route of floodwater. But nothing was done. Pakistan’s institutions remained busy with the routine exercise of submitting the local disaster plans to the government. The concerned departments did what they do every year: passing the buck to another department.
Apart from economic devastation, the imminent threat of food insecurity reaching the level of famine should also be a serious concern. The destruction of 3.5 million acres of farmland having wheat, rice and other staple crops is set to create an unprecedented level of food shortage. The increase in the support price of wheat (to 4000 and 3000 per maund by Sindh and Punjab governments, respectively) would further burden the urban dwellers. The flood crisis is fast becoming a health crisis of epic proportions. Millions of people are now at risk of infectious waterborne diseases like dysentery and cholera. Worse still, the stagnant water can spread vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. The destruction of more than 1400 health facilities and the resultant disrupted access to healthcare is set to further aggravate the crisis. So, in terms of economic devastation, food insecurity and health crisis, coupled with the fact that our economy was already under serious stress even before the occurrence of the flood, Pakistan is in deep trouble. But can we afford to return to the business-as-usual approach after the normalization of the situation and wait for another more serious and more devastating natural disaster? Obviously, no!
Now that the disaster has struck and both public and private organizations are doing rescue-and-relief operations, along with some reconstruction and rehabilitation, the significance of suggesting measures that can preempt such calamities from happening in the future has become way more important.
Like every year when we experience flood-caused destruction, the dam-led flood management vs. non-dam flood control debate has raised its head again this time as well. Both sides engage in a fierce debate about whether Pakistan needs more dams or should it just switch to more sustainable options like recharging aquifers and restoring riverine and other ecosystems. Ostensibly, ecosystem restoration looks more appealing, particularly when you see the construction of dams and canalizing its rivers is a very expensive undertaking and it obstructs the natural flow of the rivers. But as a matter of fact, Pakistan can ill-afford such long-term solutions. We are fighting for survival and such slogans may suit some developed countries, but these cannot address our immediate concerns. Although the United States has dismantled some dams, yet it still has a huge number of dams. The data by World Commission on Dams show that there are, at present, 58,000 large dams in the world and more than half of them have been built in China and India. If we add all the small and large dams in Pakistan, the total number hardly reaches 500, and fewer than a dozen qualify as large dams. Though dams have multiple functions to serve like storage of water for irrigation, hydroelectric power, industrial and domestic consumption, ecological amelioration, fishing, tourism, and recharging of groundwater, their primary aim has always been flood-prevention, mitigation and management. The dams are constructed in such a way that they break down the intensity of floodwater and channel them into weak streams downward. In a research paper published in journal the Nature in 2021, the authors proved that flow regulation by dams helped protect people downstream while concluding that dams reduce the number of people exposed to floods by 20.6 percent.
The rainfall pattern here in Pakistan is not equally distributed throughout the year; it is concentrated only in three months. If we don’t have storage capabilities, what we should do for the remaining 9 months? Pakistan does not have time to switch to an eco-system-based solution as we are set to face water shortage as soon as 2025 and our agriculture, the backbone of our economy, is a water-intensive sector. So, it is almost absurd to follow the examples of developed countries that have benefited from dams for almost a century and are now advising us to avoid investing in dams. We should go for this solution; otherwise, we are soon going to run out of water for agriculture and even for domestic consumption. Dams will always be an effective tool for floodwater storage and diversion. There should be no doubt about that.
The flood mitigating approach can be divided into two categories: structural and non-structural measures. Structural mitigation measures reduce the harms of floodwater by building or upgrading existing infrastructures like floodgates, levees, and evacuation routes and shelters. Non-structural migration measures include removing people out of affected areas and protecting their properties. Property buyouts where local and provincial governments purchase properties falling within high-risk areas, permanent relocation, development, and strict implementation of building codes are some non-structural measures that most governments all over the world practice to ensure effective flood mitigation and management.
The third approach is related to floodplains and stream restoration. No doubt, it is the most comprehensive answer to tackle floods, droughts, depleting groundwater, and climate change. But it is a long-term process and deserves systematic and gradual implementation. In 2019 a study was published under the title of Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment about the status of glaciers in Pakistan. The report warned that Pakistan’s glaciers were melting and receding fast and Pakistan could lose 1/3 to 2/3 of its ice mass by 2100. The fast-melting glaciers would continue to produce heavier floods, bigger landslides, soil erosion and other hazards up until 2050-60 and then there will be prolonged spells of harsher droughts and a shortage of hydroelectric power. This report does indicate that Pakistan needs to work on both dam-based flood management and riverine ecosystem restoration simultaneously. But what does ecosystem restoration entail? A few things! In a simple phrase, it is the restoration of riverine corridors and active floodplains all along the 3186km length of rivers. The estimated area of riverine corridors and active plains in Pakistan is 21000 km. The 6km wide area along the rivers belongs to the state and this is the area that needs rehabilitation of lost wetlands and regeneration of Bela forests. The complete restoration of riverine corridors can help break flood velocity, recharge aquifers and absorb flood peaks. Multiple reports prove that the scientific management of active floodplains and corridors can hold up to 30-50MAF of floodwater. Apart from flood mitigation, this approach can potentially recharge aquifers, tackle droughts and reduce GHG emissions.
There is no denying that floods are considered all over the world the deadliest, costliest and oft-repeated type of natural disasters. No country, let alone Pakistan, can handle this disaster of biblical proportions. Pakistan and other countries are paying a heavy price for the centuries-old ruthless exploitation of natural resources by developed countries. Climate has certainly played a role in generating larger-than-usual monsoon and accelerating the melting of glaciers, but the criminal negligence on the part of governments is also a contributing factor in the creation of this worst-ever humanitarian crisis. Had our administration taken a few proactive, prompt measures, the situation would have been not so worse. The absence of local government set-up, the inability to delegate disaster management authorities at the district level, the haphazard growth of infrastructure in valleys upstream and in active floodplains downstream, the chronic political instability, destruction of Bela forests and other wetland ecosystems along river levees are also some factors that can be held responsible for this calamity. Climate adaptation and resilience must be an integral part of our national planning; otherwise, we are going to face such disasters again and again.
The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.