A combination of manmade factors and changing weather patterns has transformed flooding into a very real risk for urban dwellers
n a series of tweets, the federal minister for Climate Change, Sherry Rehman, recently warned of “torrential rains” in metropolitan cities of Pakistan including Lahore. She also declared that the federal and provincial disaster management authorities had been directed to kick into action.
Urban flooding is not new to Pakistan. In fact, floods are the most damaging natural hazard, 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.
It would be remiss not to point out that the risk of floods no longer threatens those residing on or along river belts or floodplains alone. In recent years, urban flooding has come knocking to many affluent neighborhoods throughout Pakistan, claiming precious lives in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta. This shows that flooding is no longer limited to areas with a history of inundation. A combination of manmade factors and changing weather patterns has transformed flooding into a very real risk for many more urban dwellers.
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 the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) also ranks Pakistan among the top 10 countries in terms of deaths caused by natural disasters during 2000-2019.
The combination of landscapes at a high risk of natural hazards, such as river basins, flood plains and seismic fault lines, combined with high population densities in much of Asia, intensify the impact of disasters in the region. Pakistan, too, is situated amidst a confluence of various topographies: a sea to the south, towering Himalayas to the north; dry and arid deserts to the west; and fertile plains to the east. This mix of topography creates a unique combination of challenges in terms of climatic threats and natural disasters.
Urban flooding stems from a combination of meteorological factors and manmade interventions — such as extreme precipitation in a short time, combined with unplanned growth and development in floodplains, smooth paved surfaces (such as roads) that prevent water absorption into the ground and instead encourage its speedy flow, poor urban development practices and failure of flood protection infrastructure. Urban flooding affects settlements of all types, ranging from katchi abadis to mega cities.
The risk of floods no longer threatens those residing on or along river belts or floodplains alone. In recent years, urban flooding has come knocking to many affluent neighborhoods throughout Pakistan, claiming precious lives in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta.
While urbanisation is often marketed as a defining feature of our country’s ‘development’ it also increases flood risk. In Pakistan, like most developing countries, planning and zoning laws and their enforcement are weak. Poor planning amid the pressing need to provide housing or infrastructure in and around cities often results in development in floodplains and historically flood-prone areas; developer-centric policies that promote concrete-use and road-construction over plains and green spaces that can absorb water; and poor sanitation infrastructure are just a handful of the reasons that increase the risk of urban flooding.
recent study by Oxford University Professor Rauch et al analysed flooding events in 1,868 cities across 40 countries. The results estimated that each flooding event displaces at least 100,000 people; not to mention the impact on infrastructure, health, education and economy in terms of loss of livelihoods and lost opportunities for advancement and growth. The study concludes that flooding must be incorporated into urban planning in developing countries, in order to reduce flood risk in the face of constant climate change.
This creates a challenge for a number of reasons: for starters, the typical reactive approach to flood management can no longer be relied upon. The population and infrastructure density and the unique set of challenges an urban setting brings to flood relief and rescue, necessitate the implementation of new disaster risk management techniques, built upon a strong understanding of urban flooding.
The costs of flood recovery are most often borne by the government. Given the scale of threats to lives and livelihoods, the potential impacts of urban flooding on human capital, disruption of health and education services, and stunting growth by damaging all kinds of infrastructure and industry, floods are becoming a major impediment to growth and development around the globe.
As a first step in Urban Flood Risk Management, policy makers must understand the impact of changing climatic patterns such as the shifting of the monsoon season; the infrastructure challenges posed in densely populated areas; and how to make future development more resilient and sustainable. The public at large must be targetted through wide awareness campaigns to preserve valuable lives.
Finally, stepping away from the reactive “rescue and relief” mode that is the modus operandi of our disaster management system requires prioritising knowledge and understanding of the causes and effects of flood impacts, development of practicable measures to mitigate these impacts and mainstreaming disaster risk management as part of the 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