Facing future floods safely

Pakistan’s floods of 2022 were the latest, and most damaging yet, addition to its long history of floods

Dr Afreen Siddiqi November 01, 2022

Pakistan’s floods of 2022 were the latest, and most damaging yet, addition to the long history of floods in the country. As the muddy waters slowly recede, the need for speeding up action to face future floods stands clear.

Floods have been the most frequent natural disaster in Pakistan. Yet, decisions for land-use and habitation do not reflect this reality. The rising intensity of floods has been concurrent with an increasing population in the flood plains of the Indus river. It is this confluence of water and people in floodplains that creates the tragedy of lost lives and property. The flood of 2022 has led to reported losses of over 1700 lives, affected 33 million people, and incurred damages of over $40 billion (amounting to 11.5% of the 2021 national GDP). The flood of 2010 led to a loss of over 1200 lives, loss of homes for over 14 million people, and damages of over $43 billion. The flood of 1992 led to a loss of 2000 lives, affected more than 9.3 million people and incurred damages of over 1 billion dollars. This list continues on. Each was declared the worst flood in Pakistan’s history. Each was unprecedented at its time of occurrence. There is precedent for unprecedented floods in the country.

It is time to focus on setting a different kind of precedent — one with a clear focus on elevating the safety of people in rural, flood prone areas, and elevating the well-being of farmers who bear the most losses.

The prevailing mindset of flood management has to change. In the past, money has been poured in building levees and flood protection infrastructure, and then again on re-building higher and reinforcing more the structures to “fight” the next flood after each cycle of levee breaches, infrastructure failure, and devastation of lives and properties. Gilbert White, a prominent 20th century geographer, noted this adverse cycle, and advocated for including the role of humans in damages resulting from natural disasters. He warned about the trap of building levees, followed by eventual breaching and flooding, and then rebuilding again, with increasing level of damages in each flooding episode. The so-called “levee effect”, empirically observed in several river basins around the world, points to the paradox where building higher levees has led to increasing levels of flood damages. This is due to flood protection infrastructure creating a perception of flood security, leading to relaxation of rules for land-use and construction over time, and increasing density of habitation. This results in greater exposure of lives and properties to floods. It is time to see and stop this cycle. This can be done if policymakers and people recognise the role of human decisions in contributing to the disaster. When we recognise responsibility for our actions, we gain agency for change.

What are the changes needed? First, a conception of flood security as the emergent outcome arising from interactions of people with their environment. These interactions are governed by physical laws of nature and institutions (policies, rules and norms) devised by humans. There is a need to structure these interactions in particular ways in order to be able to steer emergent level of flood security towards a desirable state.

Second, a systems approach for addressing the complex challenge is needed. Establishing a ‘goal-seeking’ system structure to attain desired targets of flood safety is important. It entails setting clear and shared goals, having sensors for measuring the state of flood security, having accurate and timely communication of that information to relevant actors, having a process that assesses the situation (condition) based on the information, and having decision-makers with necessary authority that take corrective action. If all of these elements are linked appropriately, to produce a feedback structure at district, provincial and federal levels and function with necessary speed and resources, then level of flood security can rise.

Presently, agencies and organisations exist that monitor and forecast weather, forecast floods, conduct disaster risk management and aid in disaster response. However, shared goals of flood safety are absent. Additionally, components that produce information at local levels at required times are absent or inadequate. Additionally, components that have the authority and resources to take corrective action are lacking.

These deficiencies can be addressed. Goals and targets for flood safety can be instituted and adopted from federal to district levels. Necessary links that connect existing agencies can be established. Sensing and monitoring, such as through periodically updated flood-risk maps, can be generated at tehsil and building lot-level. These can be shared with the public (to inform property owners and residents of their flood risks) as well as to inform public officials in land-use planning. Local evacuation plans for people and moveable assets (such as livestock) in rural areas can be put in place, and early warning systems can be installed. Community education programmes that raise awareness about safety and evacuation procedures can be conducted. Actions for efficient drainage and storm water passage can be taken. Flood resilient designs and construction, and aid for households to live in lower risk areas can be provided. Financial solutions, such as funds in which land owners contribute towards flood loss compensation when needed, can be created. Such literal ‘rainy-day funds’ can be drawn up at time of need.

Overall, regular processes for short-term and long-term flood risk assessment and corrective actions can affect flood security in positive ways. These actions are not as costly as some may think. High resolution, frequently updated, land imagery from earth-observing satellites has been available for free for more than a decade. National agencies and universities within Pakistan have capacity for geospatial data analysis and flood risk mapping. Awareness and disaster communication programmes for a digitally present and cellphone-connected population are possible in faster and cheaper ways than before.

If the existing organisations are strengthened and strategically connected, and the missing components are added, systemic change will become possible — one that allows for learning and adapting at the pace necessary to face future floods safely.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2022.

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