The capital city continues to lag behind in its efforts to avert urban flooding
n June, this year, the Ministry of Climate Change had released a statement warning of early monsoons and more than usual rains in all parts of the country, including Islamabad. Climate change is a federal ministry with a mandate to initiate action to protect the planet. In Islamabad, however, it is very hard to see any signs of such actions.
The city’s 2.5 million population does not quite compare with metropolises like Karachi. Even so, it is unable to harvest rainwater and avert urban flooding.
Prof Dr Sohail Yousaf, chairman of the Department of Environment Sciences at the Quaid-i-Azam University, tells The News on Sunday (TNS), that weather patterns are changing across the globe. He says average annual temperature of the globe has already risen by one degree centigrade.
“This is called global warming. Due to this global warming, glaciers are melting and water is evaporating faster. The air is getting hotter and replacing the cool air at night. Once evaporation increases, the intensity of rains increases,” he says. Rain spells are not necessarily prolonged so that heavy rains might follow long droughts, he says.
“We are now facing two extremes in Islamabad like the world over. Due to climate change, in some months we require bousers to bring us the water we need to drink, in others we need heavy pumps to remove water from our urban centres. It is because of the shift in weather patterns,” he says, adding that the monsoon spell now ends in September instead of August.
Farzana Altaf Shah, director general of the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA), tells TNS that there was a forecast of more than usual rains during the ongoing monsoon season. Before the start of this season, all stakeholders including the EPA and the CDA had had a meeting to work out ways to tackle urban flooding, she says. “Due to our preparatory work, Islamabad has witnessed fewer cases of urban flooding this time.”
She says there is only so much the government can do. “People should be mindful at the time of building commercial plazas or houses that they do not block any drains,” she says. “Pak EPA strives to halt the mixing of sewage in rainwater drains but residents of Islamabad also bear responsibility to stop this from happening. Else this will leave an adverse impact on their health too,” she says. She also rubbishes the notion of special permissions for construction projects altering or blocking natural drainage.
Sardar Khan Zimiri, the deputy director general in charge of water at Capital Development Authority (CDA), says that in Lahore, the WASA can spend billions of rupees on building concrete water tanks to store rainwater that cannot be used for human consumption without treatment. It can be used to irrigate plants and for washing purposes. “With our limited resources, we are doing the best we can. We have dug some wells to drain rainwater underground. This water passes through several layers of gravel and sand so that it is suitably filtered by the time it reaches the ground aquifer,” he says. “Eventually, it will help lift the water table, though this will not happen overnight,” he says. “Over the years, people will see its benefits.”
Deputy Commissioner Irfan Memon has been leading the drive to clear the drains. But the problem is far from over.
Dr Yousaf offers a solution. “First of all, we need to stop cutting treees to make housing societies in Islamabad. Second, we need to filter our industrial effluents. This is not too big an undertaking in Pakistan. We also need to stop emission of greenhouse gases.”
“Both Lahore and Islamabad follow good models. The CDA has to harvest water. By building rainwater storages, it will be able to use this water to irrigate plants. The city badly needs more plantation to maintain its temperature.”
“Second, the method it has adopted to drain rainwater underground will help lift the water table and replenish our groundwater resource.”
City managers have to ensure that all housing societies have rainwater harvesting systems in place, he says. Dr Yousaf says natural drains have to be restored first. Those that have been encroached upon have to be restored on a war footing. “We are going to be a water scarce country in the years to come. We are already facing water shortages. Climate change is upon us,” he says.
The issue of rainwater harvesting is, however, directly linked to rule of law in the city. Most cases of encroachments take place in rural Islamabad. Ghauri Town, on the Islamabad Expresway, is a squatter settlement. Unplanned, it has left no space for rainwater to flow. The area smells of sewer and some portions of the locality get submerged even after light rains. Images of these portions and parts of the Expressway are routinely flashed across TV screens to report flashfloods in Islamabad. So, why have the concerned departments turned a blind eye to the problem?
Similarly, several teams of district administration have visited the areas around Soan River that have been portioned out by housing societies. The river has all but ceased to exist. Influential people have marked out whatever land in the riverbed is left with barbed wires. Armed guards are being used to protect the turf. The Islamabad Police are more focused meanwhile on the Secretariat and Saddar circles. No competent officer has been posted in the rural circle for a long time. The last SP who dared to take action against bigwigs, was soon removed from the office.
The Ministry of Climate Change needs to oversee many of these affairs. The situation on the ground calls for serious action. It is the time for climate action.
The writer teaches development support communication at the International Islamic University Islamabad. He tweets @HassanShehzadZand can be reached at Hassan.firstname.lastname@example.org