Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Flooding Pakistan

The Monsoon winds arrived late in the Indian peninsula last year. This was in no way something very unusual. Even last year, the Monsoon rains had arrived late in the month of July. But, what turned out to be very unusual this year, were the areas where rains hit hardest. Usually the rains crash on the west coast and north east regions of India. This year however, these regions received only moderate rains. The areas or regions, which get scanty rainfall normally, got the heaviest rainfall. By third week of July, monsoon winds had covered, most of the subcontinent, right up to Hindu Kush mountains in the North West Pakistan. In next few days, North-west and central Pakistan was hit like a blitzkrieg with such a fury that the rainfall recorded in these areas was highest in last 80 years.
With this kind of onslaught, it was no wonder that the water levels in the rivers soon escaped the embankments and started flooding the adjoining areas. What followed was just unbelievable. A natural phenomenon soon became a disaster and later a calamity.

In next couple of weeks, almost 20% of the land area of Pakistan was flooded. 4.5 Million people have become homeless and about 1600 persons have died. It is simply impossible to imagine the after effects that the people of this region may have to suffer in next few months or even years. Why did this happen? How can heavy rains for a couple of weeks, turn into a national calamity?

To search for the answers, let us first try to understand some geographical facts about Pakistan. Pakistan happens to be one of the luckiest countries in the world to have an elaborate natural river system in the world. There are 5 major rivers in Pakistan’s landmass. The backbone of the river system is the Sindhu (Pakistan’s region of Sindh, gets it’s name from the name of the river) or the Indus river. This river rises from a glacier near Kailash mountain in Tibet. Tibetan’s however believe that the real Indus rises as ‘Senge Khabab’ north of Kailash mountain and is joined by a subsidiary flowing from Kailash glacier from the east. Indus enters India, near village of ‘Demchok’ and flows in northerly direction. It soon turns westwards and passes near Leh city. Indus is joined by Shyok and Gilgit rivers in Kashmir and later enters Pakistan. In Pakistan, the river finally changes it’s course to southerly direction, where It is joined by Kabul river. In Punjab, water of 4 major rivers, namely, Jhelum, Chinab, Ravi and Sutluj again joins the Indus. There are still few more smaller rivers like Bolan, that join the Indus. Finally near the Pakistani city of Karachi, Indus joins Arabian Sea. This is the reason why Indus is called one of the mightiest rivers of the world. I always feel amazed, when I think about the landmass covered by Indus. This was the reason for Vedic texts to consider Indus like a deity. The ancient civilizations of Mohonjo-daro and Harappa came up in the basin of Indus and had perished later.

Even by third week of August, the floods have not receded. So far, 263,000 houses have been fully or partially damaged in the two worst affected provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. According to the Federal Flood Commission, 1.4m acres (557,000 hectares) of crop land has been flooded across the country and more than 10,000 cows have perished. Pakistani authorities have evacuated 500,000 people in 11 districts of Sindh and issued warnings to people in low-lying areas of the Indus river. Flooding has submerged whole villages in the past week, killing about 1,600 people and affecting another 4.5m. From these facts the extent of the damage and devastation can be well imagined. When details of the extent of damage became known, many people started asking the question as to how can such widespread damage be caused over such a huge area by flooding of few rivers? It is apparent that this is not the case of a few rivers flooding because of heavy rains. There is obviously some other reason for the wide spread damage and devastation caused by the floods. It is now believed that the real cause for this calamity is the wrong and unscientific way in which river waters have been managed in Pakistan over last few decades.

Satellite Image of Indus River in Pakistan on 1 August 2009
Satellite Image of Indus River in Pakistan on 1 August 2010
The landmass in Pakistan, where these rivers flow is essentially a flat country without any major hills in the region. An elaborate system of Dams, Barrages and canals has been created in this region to support the agriculture. It is true that before independence, i.e. Before 1947, British had already built few of these levees, barrages and canals. However after independence, there has been a phenomenal growth in the construction of these. Over the years, river managers in Pakistan have expanded the canal system. The overall effect now is that instead of the natural flow from the Himalaya in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, the Indus is diverted, piecemeal, east or west, wherever it is needed to support farming. Obviously this kind of diversion is not restricted to Pakistan alone. Such river diversion is a common sight in India and also around the world as populations and food production boom. The expansion of river canal system is one of the principal reasons of boom in world food production. The flip side of this unnatural diversion of river waters can be felt and seen when a calamity like the present one in Pakistan occurs.

Mr. Tahir Qureshi, a former government forest officer and game warden and now a forestry expert with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says that “ The Indus and its canals are the largest irrigation systems in the world. Pakistan’s irrigation system has turned this arid country into an agricultural powerhouse, but it has had its downside as well.” He adds that “In the past couple of decades, many of the embankment forests and trees have died or been chopped down. This also is one of the reasons for the catastrophe.”
Mr. Daanish Mustafa of King’s College London, recalls the fable in which a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a life of luxury. He is a geographer who has studied the history of Pakistan’s river management. He says that “The major river engineering is basically a Faustian bargain. Until a few decades ago, there were typically mild floods each summer—the time when the monsoon rainfall hits, and the melt from the snow pack in the Himalaya and Karakoram Mountains is at its peak. But now, because humans have sculpted the river and the surrounding natural floodplain and wetlands for farming and other needs, there are fewer floods, but when they hit, they are far worse. Over the years, there has been an absolutely mad rush to settle in these floodplains.”
Mr. Asad Sarwar Qureshi, a water resources expert at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) branch in Lahore, Pakistan says that ” There is not very much space [in the river channel] to absorb all the rainfall. We need to get it back into shape, so that it can carry its original capacity. Wetlands along the river’s course, used to take up some floodwaters, and the government also used to divert excess water into “no man’s land” during the monsoon season. But those areas have been converted to farmland”. He also points out that “Another part of the problem is that the Indus River and its tributaries carry some of the highest levels of silt of any river system. More silt equals less room for water as monsoons and snow melt inundate the now-confined riverbed and canals. Most of our rivers and canals are already silted up.”
From the explanations given by these three experts, it becomes quite clear that the main reasons for this catastrophe are not natural causes but creations and actions of humans. If that is the case, there must be solutions, which would avoid the recurrence of the disaster at least in future. These experts talk of following steps.
  • Allow the river to flood more regularly, and naturally. This would help temper the floods and make them more tolerable.
  • Give the rivers room to expand. If not along the whole way, at least some of the wetlands along the way should be restored.
  • Majority of levees may be kept in place, but maintained better.
  • Plant trees along the riverbanks. Earlier practice of promotion of seed planting of Acacia Nilotica tree along river banks should be restarted. These trees are soil binders, and a physical barrier to the flood flow. They are the flood guards, a biological means of protection.
According to these experts,Managing Pakistan’s floods is a delicate balance between giving the river more room, and building barriers to protect people and their land. They have however expressed that the chances of the situation turning around are rather dismal as it involves major landscape changes and are afraid that government may not be in a position to affect required changes considering the pressures and power plays of the government.
With real reasons behind Indus flood catastrophe becoming clear as man made and not natural, I feel that it’s kind of warning bell for India. India has been building similar canal systems in states of Punjab and Rajsthan. The threat for similar kinds of disaster striking there, appears to be quite real. While we create better irrigation facilities to feed the human hunger, we should not neglect the river basins and wetlands. If we do not do that we are likely to invite peril with our own hands. This is the lesson for India from this Pakistan catastrophe.
21 August 2010

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