Taming the floods

September 21, 2014

Increasing our ability to effectively deal with flood disaster requires us to be imaginative and explore the potential of non-techno-centric approach or the ‘soft-path’ of flood risk management

Taming the floods

As we read or hear the word flood, it conjures up images of deluge, death, destruction and devastation in our mind. And for most of us, it is nothing but a disaster that can be controlled through some (physical) structural measures.

Whenever there is a flood in the country, we find a number of politicians, self-styled experts and a section of mass media blaming both the incumbent and previous governments for building no new dams and reservoirs in the last several decades.

Without evaluating the performance of existing structures vis-à-vis flood protection, they start advocating for flood-control by saying that had new dams and reservoirs been built the havoc played by rivers in recent floods could have been effectively averted.

Let us see what this conventional ‘hard path’ of flood control is all about, its limitations, and its alternative. The concept of ‘hard’ flood control is established on the idea that nature is something which can be confronted, constrained, and made subservient to mankind.

The proponents of hard flood control conceive a ‘free’ river as a ‘wild’ river, which according to them, can be and should be tamed. This ‘taming’ of a ‘wild’ river is possible by trapping it behind some dam, barrage or other structure and then gradually releasing its water into an engineered channel.

The experience shows that at its best, the conventional hard flood control approach can prevent only ‘normal floods’ which are known for their ecological benefits like replenishment of groundwater table and deposition of silt in low-lying floodplains. However, in the long run, the structural measures are not only detrimental for riverine ecosystem but also inclined to increase vulnerability of local people to severe floods.

Contrary to the ‘hard-path’ of flood control, the ‘soft path’ of flood risk management does not take floods as something inherently bad.

Failure of structural measures in flood protection are brazenly evident in Pakistan, where administering breaches in flood protection embankments during high floods is a common practice to save the barrages and reservoirs at the cost of people.

In the recent floods of 2014, we have seen how the breaches in Atthara Hazari embankment to save Trimmu Barrage and breaches in Head Muhammad Wala and Shershah embankments caused severe flooding in Jhang, Muzaffargarh, and Multan districts.

The haunting memories of flood in 2010 are still fresh in our minds. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced due to flood induced by breaking of Kukar Wala Band to save Jinnah Barrage in Mianwali, Abbas Wala Band to save Taunsa Barrage in Muzaffargarh and Tori Band to save Sukkur Barrage in Sindh.


The story of India is no different. In his article, ‘A Dam-Made Disaster: How Large Dams and Embankments Have Worsened India’s Flood’, Himanshu Thakkar, Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People states, "India has seen its flood damages increase at the same time that the total area supposedly protected by flood-control engineering projects has grown. In too many cases, structural measures have worsened flooding."

The major reasons behind the failure of structural measures or dams to control floods in Pakistan include: reduced channel capacities due to deposition of sediments on riverbeds, faster-flowing floodwaters due to straightening and narrowing of rivers; and economic activities as well as ill-settlement patterns in flood prone areas.

The massive chain of river training embankments and related structures has narrowed the erstwhile vast riverbeds that developed over millennia. In the case of Indus River, its bed was previously spanned over 14-20km in the floodplains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, south-western Punjab and Sindh before the advent of the modern irrigation regime. It has now been reduced into a not more than 2km wide channel.

Massive embankment along the rivers constrained them to freely meander and deposit silt on vast floodplains. Instead, the silt deposition started to accumulate within the embanked riverbed, which reduced the drainage capacity of river channels.

Secondly, this narrowing and straightening of river channels tend to increase the velocity of floodwaters and enhance pressure on embankments, which result in breaches and flooding in the neighbouring settlements. It intensifies the vulnerability of people in lower riparian to severe flood.


Finally, spurs and dykes built for river training course create a false sense of security and encourage economic activity as well as ill-settlement patterns in the flood-prone areas. Consequently, the forests, pastures and lakes in the low-lying areas are turned into agricultural land. The traditional flood preparedness strategies are abandoned, particularly in the new settlements, as they are no more needed in the presence of flood protection embankments.

Increasing our ability to effectively deal with the flood disaster requires us to be imaginative and explore the potential of non-techno-centric approach or the ‘soft-path’ of flood risk management. Contrary to the ‘hard-path’ of flood control, the ‘soft path’ of flood risk management does not take floods as something inherently bad. Rather it believes that they are vital for the health riverine ecosystem.

This flexible approach of flood risk management underlines the significance of understanding, adapting to and working with the forces of nature. It lays considerable emphasis on understanding the changes that have taken place in hydrology and morphology of rivers as well as in the land use patterns.

We need to think how these changes, particularly the ones which have increased the vulnerability of local population to severe floods, can be reversed so as to reduce damage from any size of flood.

According to soft flood risk management approach, the likelihood of floods cannot be eliminated altogether. Nor is it desirable. Instead, it emphasises that we should learn to live with floods while reducing their intensity, size and duration.

Slowing the flood, improving the emergency procedures, moving out of harm’s way, protecting the most vulnerable building and areas and improving the management of existing dams are some major solutions the approach offers to deal with the flood disaster.

Instead to looking for some quick fix solutions, it is high time to make a paradigmatic shift from ‘hard path’ of flood control to ‘soft-path’ of flood risk management.

Taming the floods