Floods are coming?

The public has the right to know the state of readiness

Sarwar Bari April 02, 2019
Sarwar Bari works with Pattan Development Organisation that has been working with riverine communities since 1992 when Pakistan was hit by a super flood

With two senior federal government officials as well as Punjab Minister for Disaster Management Mian Khalid Mahmud having issued warnings about a super flood in the coming summer, alarm bells have already been ringing. The warning is primarily based on heavy snowfall and long spells of rains during the prolonged winter and early spring. It is good that officials are aware of the threatening situation and asking the relevant authorities to get ready.

But are they prepared to cope with super floods? I searched the websites of the national and the provincial disaster management authorities while I was writing this article and could not find any contingency plan for the 2019 monsoon season. However, contingency plans of previous years are available on their websites. The last one was prepared in 2018. Similarly, flood-prone districts too appear to be least prepared if their websites are a proof. Since 2009, no district has updated its response plan. One hopes that disaster management authorities at all levels of the government have woken up from their slumber after receiving the warning.

The public has the right to know the state of readiness. Disaster management authorities are expected to issue weekly or fortnightly press briefings about the preparedness level they achieve progressively at all levels so that all stakeholders prepare themselves for their respective response should this looming hazard turns into a disaster. Keeping in view the past experiences, issuance of early warning has often been too late as well as too little to respond to the disasters in an organised manner. As we all know floods don’t happen suddenly, they could be predicted. Unlike the past, we must not react in a haphazard manner. Therefore, it is imperative to inform the public initially through fortnightly press briefings. The issuance of press briefings could be made more frequent as rivers swell. This will help achieve resilience of flood-prone communities — a major objective of Pakistan’s disaster management policy as well as the need of marginalised and vulnerable communities.

If ruling parties are serious about coping with the looming disaster, they must also amend the respective local government acts by empowering local councils, especially union and village councils. Time and again has Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to do this, having reiterated the same on 27th March during the launching ceremony of Ehsaas — a poverty alleviation programme. I hope the new local government law that he has promised to enact soon also hands over functions of disaster risk management to local councils and it is framed in the light of the National Disaster Management Act. This is essential. All over the world, local councils are responsible for disaster risk management because local councillors face the same risks that the local people do.

Coming back to preparedness. There are hundreds of trained workers of NGOs in community-based disaster management. They could be mobilised on a war footing in order to provide training to local councillors. Moreover, university students, workers of political parties and members of labour unions could be involved in disaster preparedness.

Therefore, the above-mentioned non-structural measures are essential in case flood control structures collapse. Also, we must not forget that even a best structure could fail if not handled with utmost care. And that has happened so often in the past. But interestingly, human beings are control freaks and capturing nature is a common target. When nature retaliates with vengeance, very often authorities would blame the nature to hide their failures, while clerics would blame the ‘sinful’ people. There is a need to smash these myths by providing hard evidence. And it is available in abundance. This is the only way to shut officials from blaming the nature and to get away with murder.

In the aftermath of the 2010 super floods, the then prime minister had blamed the nature by saying the country had unprecedented rains. That might be true but in fact he tried to hide the failure and mismanagement of his own administration. The release of 600,000 cusecs of water from Tarbela Dam at a time when Kabul River was carrying 400,000 cusecs of water downstream Tarbela at Attock bridge was also a blunder. This approach has turned a manageable flood of water into an unprecedented catastrophe since 1992. This was also a cyclic blunder. Our dam managers love repeating it. On September 9, 1992, one million cusecs of water were released in one go from Mangla Dam. When it merged with Chenab at Trimmu, it caused widespread havoc in regions downstream. In 2014, once again the same mistake was repeated. The famous saying of Karl Marx best explains our disastrous governance: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”. Sadly, non-implementation of reports by the Supreme Court Flood Commission and the Lahore High Court Flood Commission in letter and spirit is highly likely to encourage repeat of the past blunders. Humans learn, animals don’t. So, we the citizens of this country expect no repetition.

In this regard, climate change is a very good example. Adopting the Climate Adaptation has to be done. But, still in the case of floodwaters, extreme form of structural control is the norm across the globe, including Pakistan. The National Flood Protection Plan IV is a good example. Like the Climate Adaptation, there is a need to evolve Flood Adaptation approach instead of the flood control. Make rivers bigger and prefer farmers, not structures: this should be the guiding principle of the Flood Adaptation approach.

Sadly, donors too love to give money for erecting embankments along rivers. A work that could be done by communities themselves if they are provided with technical and equipment support. Recently, I travelled along the left bank of Indus and Jhelum rivers. Almost everywhere I found the riverine people cursing the nexus between irrigation authorities and powerful landlords. In their view, most embankments and spurs were built only to protect lands of big landlords. And according to them when floodwater comes, it is diverted towards their lands. Their grievance is corroborated by the findings of the Supreme Court Flood Commission and the Lahore High Court Flood Commission.

Testing times ahead. Floodwaters are coming. This seems to be a likely scenario. Whether it will be stopped from turning into a disaster depends on the state of preparedness. Let’s remain vigilant.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 2nd, 2019.

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