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Lessons from the flood (3)

In the wake of its destructive floods, Pakistan has an opportunity to address the social and physical problems that caused the disaster in the first place, argue Daanish Mustafa and David Wrathall, concluding their three-part article.

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So what can we expect to change in the aftermath of this mega-disaster in Pakistan? It is tempting to say that nothing will change given the more than a century and a half of institutional inertia from the Pakistani water establishment. But changes in the aftermath of a disaster of this magnitude are not always planned and deliberate and not limited to formal governmental institutions. 

One fifth of Pakistan’s population has been affected by this crisis and to pretend that, somehow, after a while, they can go back to normal would be foolish. The new normal is likely to be very different from the old normal, and whether that normal will be for the better or worse is something that the Pakistani and international decision makers can influence and need to be attentive to. 

As documented before, in Pakistan the normal conditions for the rural poor are characterised by their virtual invisibility to decision makers, limited access to water, subjugation to larger landowners and fragile livelihoods. But those same normal conditions also have stories of adaptation to adversity and of social mobility. The point is to strengthen the latter in order to mitigate and undermine the former. Dispelling certain misconceptions and highlighting avenues for intervention might help to achieve that end.

In the post-flood scenario, the greatest urgency is dedicated to the usual basic needs such as food, shelter, clean drinking water and so on. But two key issues have not received sufficient attention – the first is of drainage, and the other is targeted assistance to small farmers and the rural poor. 

First, the issue of drainage is going to be key – after all according to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) as of December 2010, more than four months after the river floods subsided, up to 4,210 square kilometres of land is still inundated in the southern Sindh province. Most of the flooding is from breaching, which typically occurs on the right bank of the rivers, to allow water to drain right back into the river once the flood peak has subsided. In Pakistan, the density of canal, road and levee development has prevented water in the inundation zone from draining back to the main-stem river, instead turning it into a cesspool of disease and delaying the return of affected populations. 

Pumping water from such inundation zones should have been a high priority from the start, but there is no evidence to suggest it has been done. Delayed action could have consequences not just for livelihoods but also for the proliferation of diseases and mortality levels. The drainage of flood water should not just be an episodic reactive measure, but a higher priority in infrastructural design or redesign.

Second, the Pakistan government, like most other governments inevitably deals with aggregate numbers when it comes to relief and rehabilitation aid. The need here is to specifically target small farmers who, with the loss of livestock and summer crop, are particularly vulnerable. There haven’t been any systematic vulnerability assessments in Pakistan, except some piecemeal ones undertaken by a few NGOs. Systematic vulnerability assessments must be carried out using some of the insights from recent research. 

But in the interim, local level governance structures that used to exist may be resurrected, even if briefly in order to get the local level knowledge to national and international level agencies so that they can target the most vulnerable. There is a sufficiently robust moral economy in rural Pakistan to provide some level of support to the rural poor, but that moral economy has been strained to its limits and is in need of support.

On the institutional side, the government of Pakistan, as usual, received considerable criticism for its slow response to the disaster. While the government merits criticism on many, many counts, in the context of flood response much of the domestic and international attention has been unfair. First, the extent of the disaster is such that no government in the world could have fulfilled the type of retrospective expectation that the press and the public seems to have attached to its response. 

Second, local level is the first and the most appropriate level for responding to environmental disasters, not the national government. The present “democratic” government unfortunately and ironically has eviscerated local level representative government. Third, disaster response in Pakistan is constitutionally a provincial subject, and not a federal subject. The federal government has no constitutional basis to intervene in disaster response unless requested by the provincial government. And when it is requested, the only institution it has to offer is the armed forces – which, by all accounts, are effectively delivering services. So the criticism that the military is doing everything and federal government is not is incomprehensible. 

Fourth, even at the provincial government level, populations and geographical areas are so enormous that the functionality of a federalist structure to ensure more efficient devolved government would not hold. Consider that just the Punjab province in eastern Pakistan has a population of more than 90 million. If it were a country by itself, it would be one of the 15 most populous countries in the world. In the absence of local government structures, which the present provinces themselves have eliminated, their efforts for flood relief were also inevitably inadequate.

Flood policy in Pakistan has been somewhat of a peripheral area for Pakistani water managers, and even then it has been limited to concerns with physical risk and exposure reduction. On the physical risk management side the priority for dam and barrage management has always been irrigation, power generation and then flood control as an afterthought. There is an urgent need for Pakistani water managers to be trained to do multi-criteria management of the system, where long term flood management is a priority on par with other priorities. The managers, if trained and given the necessary autonomy, could operate infrastructure in such a way as to flush channels and reduce the need for costly levee breaching during flood events. 

Pakistani water managers must also be sensitised to the need for adapting to the rhythms of the Indus basin rivers, instead of maintaining the attitude of heroic engineering to control them. Allowing some inundation zones and restoration of wetlands could go a long way towards moderating high flood peaks, in addition to providing important ecosystem services such as groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration and bio-diversity benefits – which the poor tend to benefit from the most. People living in such inundation zones could be relocated to newer canal colonies after fair and just compensation.

Flood warning systems could also be improved. Pakistan has some of the highest cell phone penetrations in the world – 86% of men and 40% of women in Pakistan use a cell phone. This network could be effectively used as a conduit for emergency information and warning.

And the Pakistani public needs to be educated about flood response strategies and what is expected of them. Greater communication and trust between the flood managers and the people is the ultimate guarantee of safety. It is appropriate that the federal government of Pakistan should limit itself to undertaking technical assistance to the provinces – and then physical assistance if need be – through the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). But NDMA has very little budget during normal times and has dubious constitutional authority to intervene in disaster situations. Those constitutional and budgetary issues should be resolved.

But for long term flood hazard mitigation, there is no alternative to being attentive to issues of vulnerability reduction. At the national level, this flood could provide the impetus for the government to undertake some painful but necessary tax reforms to bring larger segments of the privileged Pakistani’s income into the tax net. With a tax to GDP ratio of only 10.2%, the long term ability of the government to invest resources in reducing vulnerability and development is likely to be very limited.

Lastly, representative and accountable local level governance structures are a must to tap information about vulnerable populations and then to target them. International donors and Pakistan’s government could fruitfully engage the Pakistani provincial governments to restore local level governance structures so as to facilitate local level development as well as vulnerability mitigation.

The 2010 floods were a disaster, but the disaster can be used strategically to build better and to address better the problematic social and physical factors that contributed to the disaster in the first place. Climate change may not have been a top priority for the Pakistanis but with anomalous meteorological events becoming alarmingly frequent, it is important that Pakistani managers start being attentive to a future world where their past experience of average conditions will not hold. That will mean reworking their operating procedures and managerial outlook. Vulnerability reduction is the best defence they can have against future uncertainty and that is where they need to focus. Hopefully, this intervention – coming in the aftermath of a disaster – will serve as a reminder to focus on vulnerability, adaptation and even some humility in the face of river systems like the Indus.


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. 

Part one: Overcoming human error

Part two: An historical perspective 

Homepage image from Oxfam International

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