A bumpy road to resilience

January 15, 2023

Despite efforts to repair the damage, the country remains vulnerable to further impacts

A bumpy road to resilience


rime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres unveiled an ambitious plan in Geneva for a resilient Pakistan. The initiative strives to spark empathy from the international community to marshal a hefty sum of $16 billion to underpin Pakistan’s efforts to build a climate-resilient country through a robust set of initiatives. Assembled with technical assistance from international organisations, the framework focuses on four Rs: resilient recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. The plan for the rehabilitation of the millions of compatriots affected by the floods is based on four strategic recovery objectives. The international community has responded with immediate pledges of nearly $9 billion. The prime minister has pledged transparency in the use of funds and an independent monitoring mechanism to that end.

Pakistan has been frequently hit by climatic disasters that occur with alarming frequency and devastating intensity. Despite efforts to repair the damage through rehabilitation and reconstruction, the country remains vulnerable to impacts from adverse climate events. To address this ongoing pattern of hydro-climatic disasters, Pakistan requires a fundamental overhaul of its development model. This will involve revising development planning, strengthening institutions, upgrading infrastructure and improving community resilience to be able to withstand disasters of astronomical scale.

Climate-insensitive infrastructure has emerged as a major factor in perpetuating flood disasters in Pakistan. Despite being more than a century old, some British-era school buildings and railway tracks managed to survive while some more recently constructed structures fell to rain and floods. A cursory examination of the railway tracks and the Indus Highway near Sehwan, for example, reveals that culverts are conspicuously missing under the road [A culvert is a structure that allows water to flow under a roadway, railway or other transportation structure]. Both the railway track and the highway run through natural path of hill torrents descending from the Khirthar Hills. While English engineers had the foresight to provide culverts almost 144 years ago, some road engineers seem to have overlooked the aspect in their plans. Similarly, the Left Bank Outfall Drain has been aligned across an old natural waterway.

This year a blockade of this passage created a crisis-like situation in parts of Mirpurkhas and Badin that kept thousands of families on tenterhooks for several days. The Indus Highway was also subjected to a relief cut near Sehwan to let the flood water drain into the Indus River. A culvert at the location should apparently have been a part of the design. Large tracts of kacha area in Sindh are occupied by landlords for agriculture. Many have constructed illegal dykes in the river belly. Satellite images of newly constructed bridges at Larkana and Amri show how far the Indus has been encroached on. These poorly designed barriers impede the flow of floodwaters and can cause backflow for several miles, leading to raised water levels. In Karachi, unchecked human settlements on centuries-old waterways, rain-fed streams and encroachments on nullahs or storm drains go unchecked. These encroachments include villages, cropland and roads. The restoration of these waterways is a pressing demand in Karachi, but this will require large-scale displacement of communities and the demolition of swathes of infrastructure. The extent of these encroachments is so great that removing these will be a Herculean task. Most politicians shy away from addressing such problems.

The District Disaster Management Authority is meant to be the lynchpin and yet it is non-existent for all practical purposes. Instead, the deputy commissioner’s office is expected to handle all kinds of disasters.

Many cities and villages lack proper storm drainage. This results in urban flooding. As the population continues to grow, many towns are expanding haphazardly without proper planning or building controls. On the outskirts of these towns, agricultural land is being consumed by an unregulated real estate market, and new housing developments are being built without consideration for their impact on the environment. A malfunctioning local government system has left a void at the grassroots level, making it difficult to mount an effective defence against these challenges.

Failure of flood protection dykes, breaches in major agriculture run-off drains and shabby urban infrastructure combined to cause havoc. Several districts of Sindh have large pockets of flood water trapped inland that has nowhere to go. Substandard planning and rickety engineering are a source of peril amid recurring natural disasters. Retrofitting the infrastructure erected over seven decades to make it flood resilient is a forlorn hope. Nonetheless, an incremental plan to mitigate the severity of future disasters is being put together. Fortifying flood protection dykes, providing cross drainage structures with roads across natural waterways and proper maintenance of drains are urgent priorities. Removing encroachments from natural waterways is a painful task that must be performed. Governments will have to show more courage to address the problem as a lack of action is only exacerbating the situation. A long-term solution will be to incorporate climate-resilience measures into public and private sector development projects. This does not just mean including a token clause in the PC-1 documents; rather a shift in the way development is planned and implemented. The country needs a comprehensive development programme with a coherent plan that incorporates key areas of human development.

Under the new approach, every project should be viewed as a piece of a larger climate-resilience puzzle that seamlessly fits into the social, technical, environmental and economic aspects of other projects. This will require a departure from the current development approach and equal emphasis on unlearning old ways and learning new ones. Such a paradigm shift requires a strong political will and determined leadership.

A major issue is the fragmented institutional structure of the disaster management system. District Disaster Management Authorities are meant to be the backbone of the system, but are practically non-existent in many places. The deputy commissioner’s office, a vestige of the colonial era, is expected to handle all kinds of disasters through various understaffed departments that are not fully in his jurisdiction. The Provincial Disaster Management Authorities, which are meant to lead the response, are also ineffective due to a lack of technical expertise, dedicated resources and the inability to command other departments during emergencies.

The inefficiency of the response during the rescue and relief phase in Sindh has exposed the weaknesses of the current system. A well-functioning and agile institutional structure is an essential component of a resilient disaster management system. Disaster management organisations have a specialised role to play, but their structure and mandate need to be re-evaluated. To effectively manage disasters, they require dynamic leadership, skilled personnel, advanced technology, adequate financial and material resources, and the autonomy to take action. Additionally, organisations in the humanitarian and development sectors need a conducive environment to operate and provide aid. The regulation of non-governmental organisations should be simplified and relaxed, so they can reach more people in more parts of the country.

Pakistan has been repeatedly struck by disastrous events, causing setbacks to economic growth and human development in recent years. After facing the complex challenges of political instability, a fragile economy, terrorism and poverty, in addition to natural disasters of biblical proportions, the country is worn down. The rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure on a solid foundation of the 4R framework is more important than ever. The international community’s support in achieving the 4Rs is crucial. The missing fifth R is the government resolve for change. Without this resolve, it will be impossible to turn the 4Rs into a reality.

The writer is a humanitarian sector professional. He can be reached at nmemon2004@yahoo.com

A bumpy road to resilience