The growing threat of urban flooding to lives and livelihoods necessitates both technical and non-technical, non-structural adaptive strategies to directly address rainwater management, surface runoff and sanitation and wastewater infrastructure
The urban flooding phenomenon used to be a once-in-a-lifetime event in Pakistan; that is not the case any longer. In Lahore, a major urban flooding event was recorded in 1996 when the city received the equivalent of two months of rainfall in just over a day. Since then, while there’s been some respite, the past half-decade or so has seen a resurgence in urban flooding across the country — this year, urban flooding has been reported in all four provincial capitals, in addition to other major cities.
Floods are the most damaging natural hazard in Pakistan with 26 major events having ravaged the country since 1950. The 2010 “super flood” alone affected 20 million people, and caused direct and indirect losses worth nearly $10 billion. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) posits close linkages between climate change and disaster risk. The Global Climate Risk Index by German Watch analyses global extreme weather events and socio-economic impact. The 2019 CRI ranked Pakistan as the 8th most affected country when it comes to extreme weather events. This means that all kinds of weather and related phenomena — from rains to droughts — are becoming more intense, frequent, and catastrophic. A report by United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) pointed out the high risk of floods and droughts during the monsoon, estimating over eight million people would be impacted in Pakistan this year alone.
It is crucial to understand that urban floods are not discrete, bounded events, rather borne out of a confluence of natural and manmade factors including but not limited to climate change, deforestation, fossil fuel use, extreme variations in precipitation, land use change, and inadequate drainage and sanitation infrastructure. Nearly a generation has passed since the last major urban flooding event in Lahore, and indeed the Punjab. Hence, much about urban flooding has been left in historical records. Many communities may not even know about urban flooding risks until they find water coursing through their houses, streets, and neighbourhoods.
Whilst the impacts of urban flooding — inundation of streets and residences, losses and damages to property and vehicles, and destruction of infrastructure — are easily visible, it is the indirect impacts that leave longer lasting effects. These include threats to the public health system and a potential for endemics and outbreaks, loss of livelihoods, and inability to travel, to name a few.
These impacts disproportionately (though not exclusively) affect those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, who already have a lower capacity to respond and recover, thus creating a plethora of socioeconomic challenges and stressing existing social and community service systems.
The growing threat of urban flooding to lives and livelihoods necessitates both technical and non-technical, non-structural adaptive strategies to directly address rainwater management, surface runoff and sanitation and wastewater infrastructure.
Nearly a generation has passed since the last major urban flooding event in Lahore. Hence, much about urban flooding has been left in historical records. Many communities may not even know about urban flooding risks until they find water coursing through their houses and streets.
Effective policy making, planning, and implementation of mechanisms for urban flood management requires comprehensive risk assessment. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) developed comprehensive guidelines for conducting Multi-Hazard Vulnerability Risk Assessments (MHVRAs) in Pakistan. A major MHVRA effort spanning 20 districts of the Punjab was undertaken by the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), Punjab, with the support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
Risk assessment and hazard mapping is necessary for a systematic shift from a backward-looking approach to one based upon current understanding and future projections using scientific data and local contextual knowledge. In simple terms, risk assessment allows quantification and identification of areas, structures, and populations at risk in certain extreme scenarios through in-depth analyses of hydro-meteorological data and simulation of floods. Together the qualitative and quantitative assessments form the foundation of urban flood management by entailing projected climate scenarios, identifying vulnerable infrastructure and communities, highlighting at-risk urban systems and identifying factors that systematically combine to increase risk.
It really isn’t a surprise that most factors that exacerbate urban flooding stem from haphazard land-use to build bridges and roads obstructing natural runoff paths and water channels, stripping away land cover and vegetation in the name of development to construct buildings and a drainage and sanitation infrastructure operating near peak capacity. Land-use regulations establish the scope of permissible infrastructure in floodplains and along water channels. However, a limiting factor in the application of these codes and enforcing zoning regulations is the willingness and capacity of local government bodies and municipal agencies. If development and expansion continues to receive preferential treatment at the expense of flood management, and local regulations are not enforced, flood risks will continue to mount not just in Lahore but all urban areas of Pakistan.
Emergency management in the disaster context is also heavily reliant on hazard identification and vulnerability analyses prepared for specific geographical areas. While historical experiences of hazards give disaster managers and emergency workers some context to begin with, research points out severe shortcomings in the ability to project flood vulnerability in urban areas. This vulnerability also increases as population density increases. The effects are multiplied when flooding damages electrical, transportation, communication and other support systems. Given such high levels of uncertainty, planning and response for urban floods may be even more difficult and fraught than it already is.
As the threat of urban flooding continues to pose risks to lives and livelihoods, community involvement in the process — from participation in the data-gathering process to public information and awareness campaigns to volunteer training for rescue and relief — must be encouraged.
This is undoubtedly a huge task —casting the community participation net widely — yet, successful examples of volunteerism in the past provide ample opportunities to capitalise on.
Finally, it must be reiterated that a combination of regulatory, socioeconomic, and policy measures must be adopted in line with national development agenda.
The writer is a development sector professional with nearly a decade of experience in communications and reporting. He has supported the implementation of The World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) and ADB’s Flood Emergency Reconstruction and Resilience Project (FERRP) in Pakistan