Flash floods: Building resilience to cope with disaster

Published: March 11, 2013
A view of flash floods that hit Muzaffarabad. PHOTO: FILE

A view of flash floods that hit Muzaffarabad. PHOTO: FILE


In his village near Muzaffarabad, Nazeer Butt, 40, points to his ruined house on a steep mountainside. “Three outer walls caved in and the roof was damaged when a torrent raced down the hill and hit it last month,” Butt said, according to a report by the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN).

Currently living with a neighbor, he attempts to rebuild the house. Last month, flash floods caused damage over a wide area, killing “29 people in various areas”, according to Adnan Khan, spokesman for the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA).

Flash floods tend to be more destructive than regular flooding because of the element of surprise, and the force of the water, which carries far more boulders and other debris, destroying infrastructure like roads, dams and irrigation systems.

A new report by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) says a “growing body of evidence indicates that the frequency and intensity of flash floods are increasing in the countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.”

The cause

Flash floods can be created when glacial lakes, bodies of water created by retreated glaciers, burst their banks. An ICIMOD survey identified 5,000 glaciers in Pakistan, of which 52 look to pose a risk of triggering flash floods. Sudden heavy rainfall during the monsoon can also trigger flash flooding.

Preparing for the unexpected

Although flash floods are classed as unexpected extreme weather events, communities are by no means powerless and several measures can be taken to build resilience.

“Flash floods are fairly common. We try to raise awareness about minimising damage,” Khan PDMA, said.

In Chitral, a project was started in 2008 to set up an Early Warning System to provide people with a few minutes of warning in advance of the flooding, by using mosque loudspeakers and text messaging.

Around 90 percent of the district is at risk of flash flooding, according to ICIMOD. Community leaders have taken part in workshops on how to help them reduce the damage floods cause, and manage such disasters when they happen.

Villages also carried out “dry runs” of disaster management strategies, and established evacuation routes and safe areas of ground that residents can escape to.

Tree planting and
gabion boxes

Tree-planting is encouraged as a way to stop erosion, slow down water run-off, and also slow down the decline of glaciers. “Human activity and interference with the natural environment, such as overgrazing in the upper catchment and deforestation, compound the problem, as lack of vegetation causes direct runoff which can trigger a flash flood. This, together with climate change, is contributing to increases in the frequency and magnitude of flash floods in the study area,” says the ICIMOD report on resilience programmes.

Water channels, check dams and gabion retaining walls made from packing stones in a wire frame have also been built in some of the villages as part of the structural mitigation programs implemented in collaboration with the government. Potentially life-saving equipment and supplies are also stockpiled in case of emergency.

Scaling up

There is no definitive data so far on how many lives such initiatives have saved, though volunteers have put their skills into action on several occasions since 2010 to help families affected by flash floods.

Pakistan does not yet have a national strategy that specifically plans for dealing with flash flooding, but in late February the country’s National Disaster Management Committee approved a new Disaster Risk Reduction policy to help the country build resilience to extreme climate events like floods, avalanches and landslides. It recommends the wide application of solutions similar to those seen in the flash flood-prone valleys of K-P.

“The fact that Pakistan experiences a range of regularly occurring hazards provides a strong rationale for investing in multi-hazard Early Warning Systems that provide advance warnings to both decision-makers and communities,” says the policy.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2013.

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