Weak planning regulations and construction near rivers could have turned a serious situation into a crisis
Construction of housing, agriculture and mega dams encroaching flood banks are responsible for exacerbating flooding across Pakistan last week, according to observers on the ground
Unusually heavy monsoonal rains across Pakistan have devastated homes, crops and taken the lives of at least 130 people due to the floods last weekend.
But as with recent flooding in India, it appears a combination of weak planning regulations and construction near rivers turned an already serious situation into a crisis.
“People have moved deep into the river bed, constructed houses (made up of mud) and cultivated the land which comes into the flood water each year when the monsoon rainfall starts”, Action Aid communications officer Zakaria Nutkani told RTCC.
“In my understanding, based on my visit to flood affected areas and reports from Action Aid Pakistan partners in the field, there have been evident discrepancies in construction of water irrigation channels (canals) and bridges which cannot withstand the pressure of gushing or overflowing water and it unleashes the water to the direction of major towns and cities submerging everything in its way.”
In the aftermath of flooding in 2010 and 2011 disaster relief agencies warned the government that the gradual conversion of flood plains into farmland and residential properties could make future Indus flooding worse.
Humanitarian organisation Refugee International reprimanded the Pakistani government in 2011 for “not [having] fully implemented zoning laws to prevent the construction/rebuilding of houses in flood-prone areas or developed laws and policies to better protect vulnerable, flood-affected populations from dispossession.”
Local experts have also expressed concern at the high levels of poor planning in the country.
“Due to the construction of barrages and hundreds of kilometres of flood protection embankments the flood plains of the Indus have been considerably reduced. They can no longer cater to exceptionally high floods,” wrote Pakistani architect Arif Hasan in September 2010.
“Not only have the flood plains shrunk but shrub-lands and forests in them have been destroyed to make way for agriculture. This has increased the scale of flooding and the velocity of water. It has also made embankments more susceptible to erosion and collapse.”
A weak central government and continued conflict in parts of the country has hindered attempts to make the country more resilient to extreme weather events.
In February the government launched its National Climate Change Policy (NCCP), while in April it increased funding to the Global Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC) based in Islamabad, which is expected to make further recommendation son dealing with climate risk.
But as the links between extreme weather and climate change become clearer, government action on adaptation is likely to come under greater scrutiny.
“They need to give the rivers room to expand,” Daanish Mustafa of King’s College London told the National Geographic after the 2010 floods. “Not along the whole way, but they should restore some of the wetlands along the way,” adding: “There was absolutely a mad rush to settle in these floodplains.”
According to the Climate Development and Knowledge Network (CDKN), Pakistan is one of the most climate vulnerable countries on the planet. It says that over the past 20 years, 141 extreme events have killed on average over 500 people a year, and led to annual economic losses of more than US$ 2 billion.
In the Sindh province alone, 2011 flooding led to 434 deaths and affected 8.9 million people, many of whom had to live in refugee camps for over two months. CDKN estimates that 1.52 million homes in the region were severely damaged.
Director General of Provincial Disaster Management Authority, Captain Muhammad Asif visited flood-affected areas in Jampur in the Punjab on Sunday and instructed the local administration to offer financial assistance of 0.5 million rupees (US$8,143) to the heirs of each dead person.
Asif also said that seeds and fertilisers will be provided free of charge to the farmers whose crops were destroyed by the flood water.
However, Nutkani argued that the compensation offered by the government was “not satisfactory at all because first, the human loss is irreparable and secondly there needs to be in place an effective emergency preparedness and response plan on the part of government.”
“It is also pertinent to mention here that the government should prioritise women, children, disabled people and minority groups while announcing any kind of compensation scheme for the floods affectees.”
Last year, flooding damaged nearly 650,000 houses in three provinces of Pakistan, and affected almost 485,623 hectares of land while over 12,000 cattle died.
Action Aid, Rural Support Programmes Network and the US Agency for International Development have been working with communities in Pakistan to boost their resilience to natural disasters.
Despite an Emergency Preparedness Plan which according to Action Aid is in place, last year’s floodwaters are yet to recede and over a million people have not been rehoused, living either in temporary settlements or shelters built next to their damaged homes.
On the other hand, the experience of three years of flooding has also strengthened coping mechanisms and the quality of any eventual humanitarian response.
Khaleel Tetlay, chief operating officer at the Rural Support Programmes Network told news site IRIN in May: “The situation is not what we would call optimal, but over the last three years, since the 2010 floods, there have been significant improvements [in government and humanitarian organisations’ capacity],”.