Recent monsoon rains and the destruction they have left in their wake in major cities of Pakistan’s Punjab province provide a grim picture of the inability of urban settlements to cope with intense downpours in a warming world.
Blaming India for floods decreases the pressure on the Pakistan government to address its own incompetent water management
Pakistan has experienced floods every year since 2010. This has caused heavy losses for people and the country’s economy. The 2010 mega-flood inundated one fifth of the country, killed over 1,600 people and caused over US$10 billion in damages. Experts blame the government’s weak water management policies and poor flood control systems. They also point to the country’s lack of water storage facilities, which means floodwater is wasted every year.
Pakistan’s media have taken a different stance: reports in major newspapers have alleged that current floods in Pakistan – which have left swathes of the country under water and displaced thousands of people – have been worsened because Indian authorities opened the gates of the Baglihar dam on the Chenab river in the Indus basin. However, the Pakistan Meteorological Department has refuted claims stating clearly that floods were due to heavy rainfall, not the actions of India upstream. So where did these claims come from?
Umar Asghar from the Daily Express argues anti-India news boosts ratings and readership numbers. Majid Siddiqui, a senior journalist and executive producer at the TV channel Abbtak, says the Indian media uses similar tactics in its anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Politics, extremism and terrorism make headlines, he adds, while issues like water resources are not often discussed in the media. Afia Salam, senior journalist and media analyst argues historical tensions between India and Pakistan play a big role: “We have to look at the historic anti-Indian sentiment in Punjab and the tale of handing over three rivers to India under the Indus Water Treaty.
What’s worse is that journalists talk to politicians instead of experts,” Salam said. In Pakistan perception India is responsible for flooding downstream is widespread, although experts disagree. Claims current floods were due to India opening the gates of the Baglihar dam on the Chenab are untrue, says Mr Arshad Abbasi, a water expert and advisor for Water and Energy in Sustainable Policy Institute (SDPI).
However, India’s construction of the dam – along with a number of other dams – does violate theIndus Water Treaty, he added. Under the treaty, signed by both countries in 1960, Pakistan holds the right to the water of the three western rivers in the Indus basin (the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) and the rights to the eastern rivers belong to India. India argues the dams are run-of-the-river facilities and fall within their rights under the treaty. But what is Pakistan doing to protect itself from floods by managing its own rivers?
“We are simply doing nothing”, said Abbasi. “We neither build new dams, nor can we stop the Indian violations. People holding important posts are totally unaware about the dangers Pakistan is facing due to climate change. We have witnessed heavy rains across the country in a relatively short period. Although we need to be on high alert, we do nothing except make plans on paper.
Dr. Parvez Amir, water expert and former member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change, agrees, “The danger of climatic change is imminent. It cannot be evaded by burying our heads in the sand and placing all the blame on India is no solution either.” Pakistan and India have taken drastically different approaches to managing their water resources.
Pakistan has not built any water reservoirs since the Tarbela and Mangla dams were built in the 1960s and 70s. Meanwhile, India has built hundreds of dams, reservoirs and barrages to provide water to its desert areas over the past four decades. As a result, India has the capacity to store enough water for 100-120 days, while Pakistan can only store 25-days worth of water, says Amir. Pakistan urgently needs to build more water storage to reduce the impact of flooding and save water to use during periods of drought. “We have nine sites on the River Indus which we can use to store water,” Amir pointed out. “This water was enough to store and fill eight dams the size of Tarbela [which holds 14.3 km3 of water]. Even if we cannot construct big dams, we could have increased the storage capacity by making barrages and big lakes to save water.” Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change. The devastating 2010 floods affected almost 20 million people – more people than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and the Haiti earthquake combined, according to the UN.
Reports of destruction caused in distant villagers marooned and of bridges connecting remote settlements and landslides is another story altogether.
But to climate scientists like Ghulam Rasul, the deputy director general at the Pakistan Meteorological Department, the weather event such as the one witnessed in Pakistan, is the beginning of the new normal in years to come. The aberration in weather patterns will be exacerbated by inadequate and poor planning and poor governance, he said.
By September 6, the death toll had crossed 100 in Punjab and Pakistan administered Kashmir. The Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, has announced an immediate compensation of Rs 500,000 ($4,900) to the relatives of each person killed and Rs 100,000 ($980) for those injured in rain-induced incidents.
“The reason for this heavy precipitation is quite clear; it is a consequence of climate change,” Rasul told thethirdpole.net. He explained that the current “spell of rainfall persisted for longer period than usual.”
It would have been normal and “routine” if the monsoon system coming from the Bay of Bengal, crossing India had reached the border of Sindh and moved northwards and it had rained along the way when the winds reached Punjab before reaching the foothills of the Himalayas.
Terming the current nexus a “triangular interaction,” Rasul said, “In this particular instance, the monsoonal system overstayed its journey over the plains of Punjab where the cold wind interacted with surface temperatures that were high, leading to increased heat energy. This, in turn, caused enhanced precipitation.”
Rasul warned that intense and heavy rainfall causing urban flooding is going to be a regular feature in future.
While Naseer Memon, heading the NGO Strengthening Participatory Organization, finds it difficult to establish a connection between such lone events to climate change, he says these events provide a reality check on the ability of urban areas to cope with flooding from intense downpours. “Improper land use, poor urban infrastructure and haphazard/unregulated settlement are visible reasons that converted a weather event into a disaster,” he told thethirdpole.net.
Comparing the destruction and loss of life caused in cities of Punjab near the Chenab river to Islamabad, he said the federal capital also received heavy showers but no casualties were reported. The cities badly affected included Lahore (268 km from Islamabad), Gujranwala (202 km) and Sialkot (192 km).
“It indicates the difference of infrastructure and compliance with regulations,” said Memon, author of a book called Malevolent Floods of Pakistan. He added that the populated settlements in flood plains have brought miseries to communities.
Endorsing Memon, Rasul said: “We have newer settlements mushrooming everywhere but nothing is regulated and developers are not bound by building regulations. Many of the new housing development schemes have no sewage system and if they do have it, it has smaller drainage pipes which do not have the capacity to carry out storm water.”
“If you look at our policies, including the climate policy, you will find much wisdom there, but then it remains confined to those sheaves of paper,” Rasul said, terming Pakistan “the best policy maker but the worst implementer”.
Urban planner, Farhan Anwar, author of Urban Resilience and Climate Change, a recent publication, described the “lack of research-based adaptation measures” as one of the reasons for the devastations being witnessed currently.
He said there was no “mapping of hazard zone that can locate the exposed people and assets in the projected flood zone so that a vulnerability profile can be developed there and efforts made to reduce their vulnerabilities and increase resilience.”
In addition, he said, no financial flood insurance mechanisms existed. “Often, such a calamity does not only damage their dwellings but also their means of earning and sustenance” compounding their problems, pointed out Anwar, adding that the government should initiate a flood insurance scheme based on the probability of the flooding event.
And while short term emergency response and shelter facilities get provided in the case of a disaster, he said there was a lack of an integrated evacuation and disaster risk management plan with provisions for relevant actions embedded in the appropriate legislative and institutional frameworks.
Anwar pointed to an urgent need to “determine the potential frequency and magnitude of possible urban flooding scenarios”.
He recommended a need for “establishment of flood plains” where the communities and assets and their vulnerability factors can be combined to produce an “index” of flood vulnerability. “This can then be plotted using census data to map vulnerability.”
In addition, said Anwar, the drainage network needs to be assessed in detail for its capacity to cater to extreme flooding scenarios. “Response measures such as provision of better housing options, training in first aid and basic rescue drills, relocation, knowledge and access to clearly disseminated evacuation plans etc. need to be put in place. Increase in green and open spaces in strategically located parts of the city can also act as a defense as such spaces act as infiltration basins,” he told thethirdpole.net.
This article was first published in thethirdpole.net. Click here to go to the original.
By Murtaza Haider
It’s not just about dams. Water scarcity poses an existential threat to Pakistan. It also endangers the welfare of Kashmiris in India. With interests conflicting over water, Indian Kashmiris are objecting to the 54-year old Indus Water Treaty, which they believe is detrimental to their well-being.
The Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, considers the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) “the biggest fraud with the people of Jammu and Kashmir”. Abdullah believes that rivers running through the State “are first for the people of the state. They are our right first.” As Kashmiris struggle to assert their territorial and water rights against India and Pakistan, the right to use and abuse the water flowing in Indus and its tributaries could get mired in petty politics. Instead, it should be dealt with the aim to conserve and manage water, the scarcest resource in the subcontinent.
The Kashmiri leadership in India is concerned about the control exerted by the Indian National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) on developing new hydel projects in the State. In a letter to the Indian Prime Minister, the presidents of the three chambers of commerce in the Indian-held Kashmir recently criticized the decision to award large sums to NHPC to develop new hydro-electric projects.
Click here to read the complete article at Dawn.
Filled under: Environment, Pakistan, Views Digest