Mitigating monsoon losses

PAKISTAN experienced severe monsoon downpours in July, August and September this year. There is now little doubt that the extreme rainfall was because of climate change, with the same being confirmed by World Weather Attribution, a collaborative project run by scientists and specialists from top universities and charities around the world. However, climate change alone cannot fully account for the near-apocalyptic damages sustained by communities, particularly in Sindh.

If we make the wrong prognosis, as we invariably do for most of our problems, we run the risk of arriving at the wrong solutions. Unless we understand the true nature and causes of the damages caused by the 2022 rainfall, we are bound to repeat past mistakes in the reconstruction and rebuilding phase.

The loss to the national economy, and more importantly to the affected communities, runs into the tens of billions of dollars. One estimate puts losses to the tune of $30bn, close to a tenth of Pakistan’s GDP. Housing, infrastructure and farm losses will take decades to recover. The question remains, was it really ‘floods’ that did all that damage?

The formal definition of a flood is a river or large water body bursting its banks, resulting in water spreading to areas where it is not supposed to be. Where the 2022 monsoon is concerned, floods, rather GLOF — or glacial lake outburst floods — occurred only in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: in Swat and other areas fed by catchments from the Himalayas.

Local communities suffered because the rainwater was not allowed to take its natural drainage route.

The people and administrations of these areas had absolutely no time to respond as the water began cascading to areas usually considered safe during normal monsoons. Instead, we saw horrific scenes of mountains of water pummelling through, washing away hotels and residents with them. The damage in KP towns like Nowshera and Charsadda was flood damage in the classical sense.

After witnessing the devastation in KP’s catchment area on social media, those who reside in the plains started worrying that the Indus in southern Punjab and Sindh would burst its banks as the water made its way down the country. One such discussion took place at our family dinner table in August, where younger family members expressed fears that the Indus would not be able to sustain water flows and that flooding was inevitable.

I had tried to explain to the family that, compared to KP’s rivers — which are all, in fact, small tributaries of the Indus — the mighty Indus has an embankment width of 10 to 15 kilometres, in some stretches even more than that. The water was not likely to breach the embankments if they had been normally maintained. And the Indus did not, in fact, breach its banks. The question then is: how did thousands of square kilometres of land become submerged in water?

If climate change is to be used to explain the devastation experienced by our communities, the benchmark has to be the river flows seen in 2010. Bear in mind that the water flowing through the Indus cannot be called a ‘flood’ as it takes a natural course and is, indeed, a blessing rather than a disaster; we foresters call it inundation, instead. In 2010, the river flow was 1.1 million cusecs. Compared to 2010, the river flow in 2022 was 700,000 cusecs at Sukkur Barrage and an unprecedented 900,000 cusecs at Kotri Barrage, as rainwater from both Sindh and Balochistan had entered the Indus below Sukkur.

Luckily (and to the credit of the Sindh Irrigation Department, despite all its usual follies), the Indus did not burst its banks. This is particularly remarkable below Sukkur Barrage. One may ask that if the Indus did not burst its banks in Sindh, then what was the cause of all the damage and water ponding? If we consider the dictionary definition of floods, at least Sindh was the reverse of it. The truth is that local communities suffered devastation — in fact, still are suffering — due to the fact that the rainwater was not allowed to take its natural drainage route on the right and left banks of the Indus.

Communities residing on both banks of the Indus suffered because major drainage infrastructure projects like the Left Bank Outfall Drainage Project (LBOD) and Right Bank Outfall Drainage Project (RBOD) not only failed their purpose but also prevented the natural drainage of water.

Pakistan had borrowed nearly $1bn from international lenders like the World Bank for LBOD. Formal permissions used to be required to award even the most inconsequential consultancy work for the project. Many experts have since described LBOD as ‘worse than useless’. Under the project, the natural course of water was literally cemented and blocked in Dhoro Puran in Badin. It would have taken the water to the Rann of Kutch. There are local activists in the Kadhan area of Badin who have been agitating against LBOD since the early 1990s. They foresaw the impending danger when it was being built — a danger that has now become a regular occurrence.

The RBOD is even messier. A major blunder was committed in the mid-1990s when RBOD1 was connected to the Main Nara Valley Drain, an ephemeral river that brings water from the Khirthar mountains to Manchhar Lake in Dadu. The MNVD has a far too small capacity, and RBOD has proven to be disastrous. I remember a gentleman, Mr Nisar Affandi, a farmer and industrialist from Sindh, who had agitated against linking RBOD with the MNVD, and through it to Manchhar. Nobody listened to the late gentleman, who had even briefed the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif about the risks of the project.

Pakistan deserves every penny it is asking for from the international community. However, linking all of the rain damage to climate change would be a mistake as it shows that we failed to learn and may continue on the same path of contractor-led development. We must change, and policymakers must seek a second opinion as far as mega infrastructure development planning is concerned.

The writer is a hands-on farmer with academic qualifications in agriculture, forestry and the economics of water resources.

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