Five lessons from the floods 2014

The real challenge is to develop feasible alternatives to ensure an effective governance system which helps in stopping natural calamities from turning into a human disaster

Five lessons from the floods 2014

The cost of not prioritising to learn a lesson is huge and the neglect at times is criminal. Torrential rains are one such example which has become a regular feature of late monsoon for the last few years. Despite facing repeated floods due to mismanaged rain water, we still have not learnt any lesson and this year angry Chenab River caused havoc in Punjab.

It is said that one cannot avoid natural calamities but a right set of policies and practices can stop those natural calamities from turning into human disaster. The losses of lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure due to the floods after unusual rains in September reflect lacunas in disaster preparedness, disaster prevention, and disaster mitigation policies and practices of the two nuclear neighbouring states.

In its fifth assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has strengthened its assessment that extreme rainfall will be a feature of climate change as weather patterns shift across south Asia. This assessment proved true when the vigorous South West Monsoon brought torrential rains over Jammu and Kashmir earlier in September.

A little recap first. On September 2nd, Jammu and Kashmir was hit by more than 200mm of rain in less than 24 hours -- four times the average monthly rainfall. Over the next few days, rains continued in both sides of Kashmir. On 5 September, the Jhelum River in Srinagar and Tawi River in Jammu where flowing way above the danger mark (River Jhelum at 12 feet (3.7 m) above the danger mark in Anantnag district). This water led to the worst flood in that area in last 50 years -- forcing Indian PM to declare it a national disaster.

The river dykes were breached to save major cities by Indian authorities. The water flew from Jammu to Pakistan and caused floods in the downstream seasonal nullahs of Pakistan (Sailkot) and in River Chenab for which Tawi serves a major left bank tributary. The nullahs in Pakistan with their catchment areas in Jammu turned into uncontrollable rivers, and the river Chenab turned furious. This coupled with heavy rains in Pakistan swept away districts after districts in Punjab, and also affected parts of Sindh.

Also read: Taming the floods

Lesson number 1: Natural calamities know no boundaries and so are their consequences in the absence of a coordinated disaster management strategy. India and Pakistan, despite their political differences would have to collaborate on issues of seasonal extremes -- manifestation of climate change. We already have a flood control cooperation model (Sapta Kosi High Multipurpose Project) between India and Nepal on Kosi River. Through this project the Kosi, once known as the sorrow of Bihar is envisaged to be managed through Sapta Kosi High Multipurpose Project for development of hydropower, irrigation, flood control and management, and navigation in both the countries.

Like India, the authorities in Pakistan also breached the river dykes in an attempt to save crucial irrigation barrages, cities like Jhang and Multan, (and at places) agricultural lands of powerful and influential landlords, leaving victims ask the question if they were children of a lesser god. In the absence of "effective" local government system, the decision of where to breach the dyke would always be non consultative and top-down. In India, change of land use plan is one of the toughest things. In Pakistan, in our rural areas such plans only exist on paper.

Lesson number 2: Such plans are to be prepared and vetted by local government authorities, but in the absence of local governments, the provincial government should do the flood zoning and discourage any construction in extremely flood prone areas.

 In the absence of local governmets in Punjab and Sindh, there is no room for the local people’s say in emergency aid delivery and rehabilitation efforts.

This year the flood was different from floods of 2010, where river Indus was involved and water in north western highlands had led to flash floods. This was the case of water overflowing from seasonal nullahs and River Chenab. In the absence of a strict land use plan, dry river bed get encroached (through the connivance of authorities) by land grabbers who intrude human settlements on flood prone areas. Some of the dry river beds are inhabited by landless and nomad communities. Whenever the rivers overflow, such settlements are the first one to get destroyed.

Lesson number 3: Dry river bed in dry season offers false sense of security. People need to be sensitised about potential loss to their lives, infrastructure and investment due to floods and must be discouraged from populating the river beds. This would also require providing alternative settlement areas to landless settlers.

There are 22 agencies to cope with disasters, e.g., the National Disaster Management Authority NDMA with provincial branches (PDMAs) and district branches (DDMAs); Emergency Relief Cell, ERRA; Civil Defence, Rescue 1122, etc. On top of it, we have Federal Flood Commission, irrigation departments, meteorology departments, and climate change division.

However, one finds lack of coordination and planning among most of these agencies. The best organised and well-resourced player in Pakistanis the army, and it is no surprise that they do play a crucial role in delivering emergency aid, e.g , through helicopters, army boats, etc.

Lesson number 4: There is a sheer vacuum due to under equipped civilian institutions. In the absence of any other alternative, this vacuum has to be filled in by armed forces. We need to set our allocation and spending priorities right to equip and strengthen civil institutions so that Army may focus on war against extremists.

The floods have posed a whole series of serious challenges to the country’s citizens, (and already challenged by dharnas) PMLN Government, and local administration. The sheer size of the affected area, the enormous number of victims and the short time within which releif was required  - all these create almost  insurmountable  challenges.

Although the flood is over, but we can see hundreds of villages in Gujranwala, Sargodha, DG Khan and Multan divisions which are still affected by water. They do require and (would keep on requiring over next few months) food, clean drinking water, medicines (the risk of outbreak of skin diseases, cholera and diarrhoea); feed and veterinary care for remaining livestock, shelter, etc. In the absence of local governmets in Punjab and Sindh the administrators from the state bureaucracy are running the local administration and there is no room for local people’s say in emergency aid delivery and rehabilitation efforts.

Lesson number 5: Local Self help groups must be strengthened and empowered so that they face less dependency in the event of floods.

One aspect that seems to be ignored is how this flood has affected the food and livelihood security situation. We are talking of flood in a context where almost one third population  was already not able "to secure nutritious food, for all times for everyone" (food insecure in Punjab). Thousands of acres of cultivated land in Punjab (the bread basket of Pakistan) is inundated. After the devastating floods all three components of food security have turned even worse.

The loss of livelihood  opportunities directly affects the socio-economic access to food. Loss to physical infrastructure,  stored food commodities,  and livestock affect the physical availability of food. Prevalence  of diseases during floods negatively affects food absorption in human body. It should not be an exaggeration to say that after the floods more than 50 per cent of population in the above mentioned districts would  be on the verge of being insecure.

It all boils down to governance, coordinating delivery of emergency aid; having plans ready beforehand; bringing all the involved stakeholders on board; ensuring the proper operation and maintenance of irrigation  structures, creating but also operating and maintaining organisations for disaster preparedness -- all these are facets of governance.

Governance means how decisions are made within a certain society or nation; who is involved in these decision-making processes and who has which  powers  to decide; on which evidence is planning based and which planning are taken as basis for decision-making; how are conflicting views dealt with ? It would not be wrong to say that recent floods have yet again challenged the whole governance process (as defined above) as it exists in the country.

The real challenge: The real challenge is to develop feasible alternatives to ensure an effective governance system which helps in stopping natural calamities from turning into a human disaster.

Five lessons from the floods 2014