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Lessons from the flood (1)

Human error played a key role in last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan, write Daanish Mustafa and David Wrathall. In the first instalment of a three-part article, they call for a new approach to the Indus basin.

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Editor’s introduction:

In July and August 2010, abnormally heavy monsoon floods hit the Indus River in Pakistan, causing unprecedented damage. The floods deluged a fifth of the country, affecting 21 million people and destroying homes, farmland, health clinics, power stations, schools, roads and water-supply systems. The scale and damage of the floods is greater than that of the Asian Tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake and the Haiti earthquake combined.  

Six months later, on January 31, the Pakistan Federal Government called an official end to relief operations. But the disaster is far from over. Millions continue to need humanitarian aid, with deeper effects to come. Many areas – mainly houses and agricultural land – remain under water or cut off. Over one million people (and probably many more uncounted) are still homeless, with no adequate shelter for the winter. In southern Pakistan, malnutrition rates, already critical before the flood, now rival those of African countries affected by famine,
UNICEF estimates  

For those affected by conflict in the north of the country – including refugees fleeing from Afghanistan – the floods have had a double impact. Time is running out for landlords, the government and NGOs trying to help farmers recover and prevent further food crises that would result in yet more families sliding into destitution and hunger.

The government deployed at least 20,000 troops to lead successful rescue operations, while its civilian officials have attempted to distribute cash handouts to flood-affected people. However, in a country prone to disasters, and where extreme weather patterns such as the current floods are becoming more and more frequent, the state should have been better prepared to deliver a response.

As the water continues to subside, Pakistan and the international community will have to learn lessons from this disaster. Was it natural or man-made? What kind of flood management will help prevent or mitigate future floods? Why did the brunt of the impact fall on the poorest people?

In a three part series, Daanish Mustafa, a water expert from Pakistan who teaches at King's College in London, explores the causes of the current disaster and draws on the lessons that can be learnt. He argues that mismanagement of river systems by building dams and embankments along the Indus has major long-term costs. A new paradigm of water management that adjusts to the natural rhythms of the river, rather than vain attempts to control and harness its water is required.

This is not the first disaster that Pakistan has experienced and it will not be the last. But the crisis can be used strategically to build better and to address the problematic social and physical factors that contributed to the disaster in the first place. The central government’s current approach of cutting development budgets in half and focusing on the cash disbursement scheme will leave many underlying issues unresolved.

Pakistan’s great Indus flood of 2010, and the unprecedented devastation it caused, cannot be understood or mitigated against in isolation from the “routine” river management in the Indus basin. The cultural, economic and social geographies of water use, distribution and regulation in the basin are integral links in the causal chain of events that led to the disaster. The disaster therefore is deeply human in its genesis, even to the extent that the irregular monsoonal pattern that triggered the floods may be linked to anthropogenic climate change. After all, the weather anomaly observed in 2010 has recurred in a milder form about three times in the past decade – in the previous century, it was seen once every 10 years.

We hope that this article will serve as an invitation to Pakistani water managers and their colleagues globally to critically re-evaluate their basic assumptions and procedures for river management and perhaps lead to greater integration of flood hazard and issues of social vulnerability in water-resources management. Vulnerability here is understood as a socially determined state of being, where people are more likely to suffer damage from an environmental
extreme and are less able to recover from those extremes.

Last year’s floods have been declared to be the worst calamity to have hit Pakistan in its history – and the world in the twenty-first century. Although the death toll of more than 1,700 lives at the time of writing this article is relatively modest in comparison with other disasters such as the Asian Tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake or the Haiti earthquake, the scale of inundation and the material damage from the floods seem to be greater in scale than the three major disasters of the twenty-first century combined. Furthermore, with stagnant water in inundation zones a major disease vector, the final indirect toll – especially on children and the elderly – is likely much higher.  

Our core argument is that the Pakistani water managers have kept a sharp eye on the benefits that they could extract from the Indus basin rivers, without regard for the hazards that are also integral to living in river basins. Pakistanis – as the proverbial Faustus – bargained with thedevil of technocratic vanity to pretend that they could ignore the river system’s natural rhythms in return for the agricultural productivity and prosperity (for some) that it could deliver. The gains from the river have been realised: now it is time to pay the price.

Approaching the river with a view to controlling and taming it is bound to fail. A better tactic would be to learn to adapt to the Indus basin’s hydro-meteorological regime, particularly in view of the looming uncertainties from climate change. An adaptive flood strategy will not only involve different behaviour towards the physical system but also towards the social systems that depend on it. Greater attention to issues of differential vulnerability to floods, and equity in distribution of the irrigation system’s benefits will be an integral part of a resilient adaptive flood-management strategy.

Last year’s flooding stems from a confluence of events possibly associated with a warming planet. In July, when monsoon rain began in Pakistan, 2010 was already the hottest year on record and high glacier runoff had already filled rivers to capacity. Evaporation rates over the hotter-than-average Indian Ocean soared, leading to especially active monsoon weather, and oceanic phenomenon La Niña is thought to have exacerbated the severity of monsoon activity. As Michael Blackburn from the United Kingdom’s University of Reading explains, both the fires in Russia and the precipitation activity in Pakistan were globally linked through an unusually strong polar jet stream, which stalled unprecedented levels of moisture over the Himalayas, pouring into the Indus valley a quantity of water equivalent to the entire land mass of the United Kingdom.

Although evidence of climatic changes cannot be deduced from a single meteorological event; nevertheless, the number of exceptionally heavy monsoons over India has doubled in the last 50 years, while at the same time moderate and weak precipitation has decreased. South Asia is becoming more arid during dry seasons, and wetter during monsoons. In the Arabian Sea, data from the 1880s to the present indicate that in past decades severe cyclonic events have increased three-fold during intense cyclone months. In the past 15 years, Pakistan has directly received four considerable low pressure cyclonic systems, of similar orders of magnitude to this year’s, in 1993, 1999, 2004 and 2007, as well as other lesser systems in 1998 and 2001. Weather variability like we have witnessed this year may be part of long term trends for the Arabian Sea.

By July 22 last year, record levels of rainfall had begun falling across Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Tens of thousands were displaced immediately, and up to a million more in the following week as flash flooding surged through riverbeds and canals. Flooding started along major tributaries, overwhelmed flood barriers and spread through canals, generally overwhelmed water-management capacity, and eventually inundated large swaths of farmland.

By early August, flooding had reached the lower Indus valley and red alerts were announced for Sindh and Balochistan provinces. According to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority, one fifth of the entire area of Pakistan was submerged at the high water mark, affecting 84 out of 121 districts. By August 31, Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan provinces along the Indus river valley were still flooded, and some 800,000 people were still physically cut off. Some levee surfaces, already saturated for nearly a month, began to deteriorate and burst, which exacerbated the crisis in several notable instances, as in the case of historic Thatta city, where 95% of the population – some 170,000 persons – were displaced.

By the first day of September, though the rain had largely ceased, contaminated flood waters continued to rise in the southern provinces, and roughly one million people in Sindh province alone were in the process of migrating away from submerged villages to higher ground, urban areas and Internally displaced person (IDP) camps. While some of the flooding was caused by the overwhelming of levees and flood barriers, a considerable amount was the result of deliberate breaching of the embankments by irrigation authorities to keep regulatory infrastructure from suffering damage. This has been a cause of considerable controversy in the country.

Around 21 million people have been affected; at least 1,700 people had perished due to flooding – probably more; and 1.8 million homes destroyed or damaged. According to the World Health Organization, 10 million people have been left with unsafe drinking water, a figure that will likely increase as time goes on, increasing the potential spread of water- and vector-borne diseases.From mid-August, cholera outbreaks were confirmed, raising the alarm of a secondary health crisis.

The floods affected 17 million acres of Pakistan’s most fertile land, causing total damages estimated at over US$7 billion (47 billion yuan) with US$2.9 billion (19.26 billion yuan) to the agricultural sector and US$4 billion (26.6 billion yuan) to infrastructure. With agricultural production decimated, food-distribution systems disrupted, food prices spiking and household economies in tatters, the spectre of food insecurity is beginning to take physical shape. With 3.6 million hectares ruined, the results of winter wheat crop for 2011 are uncertain. Food shortages in the event of a below par wheat crop could further destabilise some of the most affected areas of the country.

Certainly, the brunt of the impacts has been borne by the most vulnerable and impoverished areas. For example, 90% of the 1.7 million refugees fleeing strife in Afghanistan currently reside in flood affected districts. These are people already at the margins of society. With farmland trapped beneath water and silt, and at least 1.2 million livestock dead, small-scale and subsistence agriculturalists and cattle herders are least able to cope with impacts. According to earlier research on flood hazard in Pakistan, livestock is a key asset used for recovery in the aftermath of floods, and the losses are likely to stretch the Pakistani rural livelihood and recovery systems to the limits.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the total economic cost of flooding to rural livelihoods, agricultural output, industrial input and infrastructure, including lost economic productivity, is expected to total US$43 billion (286 billion yuan), raising the possibility of financial insolvency. Already deeply indebted, Pakistan will have to make tradeoffs in order to recover from impacts, and inevitably discussions will occur around scaling back essential social services, including education, rural healthcare and poverty-reduction programmes. As government priorities drift toward flood response, rehabilitation and reconstruction, many expect illusive development goals to slip still farther away.

The relationship between anthropogenic environmental degradation and catastrophic flooding in Asia, Latin America, Europe and other regions is well documented. Conversely, we know there is an established link between healthy watersheds with flow capacity – wetlands, marshes, estuaries and mangroves— and flood mitigation. Since disasters have been shown to be costly to long-term development goals, questions are raised about need to invest in risk reduction, and with the rising challenges of climate change, we must ask ourselves: can our engineered systems keep pace with climatic trends?


An academic version of this article was published in Water Alternatives. It is reproduced here with permission.

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Human Geography and David Wrathall a PhD student at King’s College, London.

NEXT: An historical perspective
Part three: What will change?

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