Over the past five years or so, urban flooding has ravaged our megacities, Karachi and Lahore. It has the potential to spiral into a public health crisis, besides causing loss of livelihoods and damage to personal and public property
Pakistan’s history is replete with natural disasters. Flooding is, by far, the most common and most devastating natural hazard. Since 1950, 26 major floods have affected hundreds of millions of people, impacting lives and livelihoods from the hills of Gilgit-Baltistan to the plains of the Punjab and the coast of Sindh.
The impact of these events is not limited to loss of life or damage to the economy; billions are spent in restoring infrastructure, rebuilding local communities, and providing rescue and relief to the affected communities. Historically, we have mainly suffered from riverine flooding and hill torrents overflowing following torrential downpour, particularly during the monsoon season. Over the years, under the impact of climate change on the region’s weather patterns, a new kind of flooding has started: urban flooding.
As the name suggests, urban flooding occurs in densely populated, heavily constructed areas as a result of the confluence of torrential precipitation, alterations in natural waterways and flow channels, poor and ineffective drainage and sanitation, ineffective solid waste management, and other factors. Over the past five years or so, urban flooding has ravaged our megacities, Karachi and Lahore. Widely shared images and videos show roads effectively becoming waterways, sweeping along everything in their way.
Beyond the tragic loss of life, urban flooding has the potential to become a mega disaster due to its potential to damage critical infrastructure, commercial activity and government functions.
Furthermore, the impact of urban flooding in densely populated areas has the very real potential to spiral into a public health crisis if flood waters overburden an aging drainage and sanitation network. The invisible effects of urban flooding such as loss of livelihoods, damage to personal and public property, and other irreparable ramifications often end up pushing the poorest of the poor back into a vicious circle of poverty.
In many cases, urban flooding disproportionately affects low-income areas and shanty towns — plains located in or along natural waterways, not taken up by housing societies and squatted upon.
Pakistan is well on its way to becoming the most urbanised nation in South Asia by 2025. This means that for the first time in history, more Pakistanis will be living in cities, taking advantage of centres of economic activity, but also contributing towards a mushroom growth of informal settlements and low-income housing. On top of that, overly ambitious expansion and construction in agricultural plains, the lack of an effective urban-planning system that is still mired in debates over titles and annotations, and an overwhelmed sanitation and drainage network serving manifold its original capacity, could create the perfect recipe for disaster.
Overly ambitious expansion and construction in agricultural plains, the lack of an effective urban-planning system and an overwhelmed sanitation and drainage network could create the perfect recipe for disaster.
trengthening the national and provincial flood management regime through disaster management authorities — the NDMA and the PDMAs — is now more critical than ever.
As the Punjab government’s promised megaprojects for real estate and infrastructure development take shape on the ground, disaster-sensitive urban planning offers a sustainable method for the longevity of communities in the decades to come. A multi-hazard vulnerability risk assessment (MHVRA) can provide the foundation for well-informed planning and development. An MHVRA, spanning hazard-prone areas of 20 districts of the Punjab, accounting for over 5 million people, was completed with the support of multilateral agencies. Similar exercises, expanded in scope to include densely populated urban areas are necessary to curb the harmful impacts of disasters.
Another avenue worth investing in is the community based disaster risk management, (CBDRM). This approach, championed around the world following disasters, prioritises building community awareness, resilience and capacities to respond to and mitigate the initial effects following a disaster. From simple elements such as CPR training and building evacuation exercises to complex volunteer efforts for search and rescue, relief and reconstruction, the CBDRM is a proven method to help communities help themselves.
In the wake of a devastating urban flooding in India last year, several cities and provinces have established robust flood forecasting systems. These systems take into consideration an area’s natural and manmade topography, hydrology and historical flow patterns, and flood inundation modelling based on high-resolution digital elevation maps. Such models help governments and city authorities in critical decision-making, disaster preparedness, scaling response for heavy rainfall, and post-flood recovery and rehabilitation.
Such systems can also be complemented by real-time weather data and satellite information provided by the Pakistan Meteorological Department.
One of the most crucial yet most often overlooked elements in disaster preparedness and response is the availability of a robust, time-sensitive and easily replicable communication and coordination system. This facilitates the flow of information not just to the public at large but also to policymakers and officials who need to make executive decisions that have immense ramifications. A combination of policy, planning, and implementation mechanisms for urban flood management that harness available strengths and resources is necessary to overcome the imminent risks posed by urban flooding and the wider risks associated with climate change.
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