Tuesday October 03, 2023

A tale of negligence

October 04, 2022

The recent floods in Pakistan have exposed the performance of the Sindh government. According to news reports, many public-school buildings in the flood-affected areas in the province failed to sustain the water pressure and collapsed. To date no one is sure about the quantum of damage.

An official statement has revealed that as many as 17,600 school buildings in various districts of Sindh have been damaged, out of which 12,000 schools are partially damaged and 5,619 schools are completely destroyed. It is understood that in each district the scale of loss and the intensity of damage is different, not only because of the floods’ severity but also due to the district’s topography.

I participated in the relief and rehabilitation work during and after the 2010 floods, and have also volunteered in relief activities set up after the recent floods. Based on my observations and field notes, I have found some patterns. It is obvious that the phenomenon of flood damage is quite different from the consequences of other disasters. For instance, the earthquake’s damage is instant and often near the earthquake’s epicentre. But the damage caused by floods is gradual and takes time subject to the river’s length and the width and volume of water.

There are three types of flood situations or water-related emergencies in Sindh in which school buildings, like other civic structures, are at risk. The first situation is simply called flood in the sense of ‘inundation’. It occurs when water in the Indus rises and areas between embankments are flooded. In the monsoon season, the Indus floods considerable areas on both banks.

In the second scenario, hill torrents get activated. The water from the Nain Gaj and its tributaries, and even rainwater from Balochistan flow towards the east, and pass through various water bodies and reach the Indus. During the British Raj, protection bunds and other installations were set up to save irrigation projects and settlements.

The last type of flooding is called ‘ponding’. This is an outcome of continuous heavy rains which become more dangerous when breaches and cuts bring more water into settlements. The situation becomes worse when outlets are either choked or inadequate to drain water.

It is essential to unpack each type of flood situation to understand its damaging impact. Let us start with river flooding and take the case of government schools which exist near riverbanks. These buildings sink slowly as flood water spreads and rises gradually. In most cases, engineers, when designing buildings, take into account features like the rise and spread of floods. But they rarely calculate the floods’ force and the volume of silt, soil and debris carried by it. This combined force hits school buildings, and it is said that boundary walls become the first prey. But this is not always the case. In fact, this force hits whatever part of a school building comes in front of it. Resultantly, some buildings are damaged partially and some turn into ruins.

This type of flood gives an opportunity to the education department (or district administration) to protect school buildings or at least shift furniture to safe places. However, like in the floods of 2010, in the present floods, the education department left the schools at the mercy of the floods. This year, some talukas and union councils of 10 districts on the left bank were flooded. Also, five districts on the right bank came under water.These inundated pockets of 15 districts are called Katcho. Regretfully, there is no public data that shows the location and extent of damaged school buildings in this area.

The impact of hill torrents is quite different. Its attributions are velocity, volume and force. The velocity depends upon torrents’ elevation, type of path, distance and width. Likewise, its volume banks on poured heavy rains’ duration upstream, and its force is a combination of velocity and volume. In the case of Sindh, the torrents from Kirthar and Balochistan rush to the east with a high speed and force. Consequently, it hits all structures in its path. During the British Raj, it was warned that if routes of hill torrents were tampered with, the infrastructure – including towns, engineering works, grain warehouses and even railway tracks – in the right bank would be hit, engulfed or submerged.

During this year’s monsoon rains, the hill torrents took their traditional route and headed towards the Indus. But some political leaders of the ruling party allegedly took the role of an engineer and decided to cut canals and divert water. Consequently, some settlements were sunk, and people in those areas got displaced. Unfortunately, there are no official figures of schools which were either damaged or collapsed.

In the case of ‘ponding’, accumulated water is not dewatered from towns and cities. Hence, their infrastructure, including government schools, gets badly damaged. We have the horrific examples of Khaipur Nathan Shah, Warah, Naushahro Feroz, Jhudo, Naokot, Tandojam, Tando Allahyar, and union councils of Sehwan Taluka; rainwater is seen on roads, playgrounds and roofs. It has damaged and continues to damage buildings – roofs, walls and floors have developed cracks; some structures have curved inwards and others have collapsed. The nature and intensity of damage is dependent on the depth of pooled water, stay-duration, season, and the structure’s design as well as material quality and type.

It is believed that a rehabilitation plan will soon be made. Therefore, it is important to suggest policymakers to contextualize the upcoming plan. The first step should be to plan according to school locations – schools in Katcho areas, hill torrents’ catchments and ponding pockets. Also, the plan should register specific damages, instead of using terms like ‘partially damage’ or ‘fully damage.’

The particularization of damage with perspective of ground realities such as flood route, angle and force will be helpful in prioritizing and allocating resources. The data gathering efforts should be coupled up with modern surveying technologies like the Geographical Information System and use of drones – for accurate and timely planning and execution. Additionally, generic re-functioning schedules for schools should not be announced in advance. Instead the schedule should be decentralized, and made at the school level where ground realities – impact of floods, availability of construction material and labour force, etc – are clearly visible and known.

The standing water in the flood-affected areas is currently harbouring mosquitoes. Within a record time, malaria and dengue have spread in the flooded towns. The Sindh government’s delays in making dewatering arrangements are not only damaging public and private properties but also putting peoples’ lives and health at stake.

This pooled water should be drained on a priority basis, and preference should be given to schools, especially girls’ schools. The provincial government must realize that Sindh’s education was already in bad shape as far as teaching and learning environment was concerned. And now, the floods have damaged the physical structure of schools; the state of education has gone out of the frying pan into the fire.

The writer has a PhD in history from the University of Malaya. He is associated with Sohail University and the Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi. He can be reached at: