The floods have killed more than 1,600 people (and the numbers are rising). More than 16 million people have become homeless. While nature has been unkind, it is important to see how the responsible organisation of Pakistan for the prevention of floods has performed, so that improvements can be put in place to avoid similar disasters in future.
Flooding has remained a major problem in the country, mainly due to swelling of the Indus River and its tributaries during the monsoon season. In the 19th century, during the colonial era the systematic proliferation of flood control embankments began using proper engineering design standard. These flood structures are still playing a major role in protecting our major cities for the past 150 years. After independence, up to the end of 1976, the planning and execution of flood protection works was the responsibility of provinces. Nevertheless, after the catastrophic flood of 1976, the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto established the Federal Flood Commission (FFC) and placed it under the control of the ministry of water and power. The mandate assigned to the FFC is to prepare national flood protection plans, and flood forecasting and research to harness floodwater.
Since its establishment, the FFC has spent Rs35.8 billion and $400 million on flood protection projects. The flood of 2010 has exposed the FFC’s performance and all its projects. Where has all this money gone? Most of the projects that were constructed could not withstand even medium level of floods and many exist only on paper. Had they been constructed properly the catastrophe before us could have been averted. The most devastating impact of the floods was on the Nowshera and Charsadda districts in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where as recently as 2007-8 a large amount of money was ‘spent’ on flood protection work.
While the FFC remained busy in making fanciful projects, little attention was paid to floodplain zoning, the most vital component modern flood management policy. Non-demarcation of maximum probable flood route of Indus river and its tributaries is another cause. International donor agencies had prepared floodplain zones for the Jhelum and the Chenab rivers in the late nineties with the help of satellite imagery and the historic flood record but the FFC failed to implement these plans.
In India, however, the Flood Commission (known as the Rashtriya Barh Ayog) has been far more successful. The Flood Plain Zoning Bill 2000 is its hallmark achievement. After its implementation by all of India’s states a significant reduction of human and financial loss has been observed in times of high flood.
In Pakistan, however, the FFC’s failure has been bordering on the criminal. For instance, in Swat, the first flash was triggered due to the non-zoning of the Swat River and because of uncontrolled construction including hotels and even shopping centres within the course of the river flow. Similarly in Sindh, allotment of land and other settlement in the kachcha areas was something that was allowed. On top of this, the Pakistan Met Office issued a severe flash flood warning on June 21 but officials of the FFC moved only after the devastating flood caused by the Swat River.
The lesson to learn should be to have in place a system of flood control and management and this should be done by integrating the management of water resources. Solutions include developing much-needed water reservoirs along with reforestation in river catchment areas.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2010.