Make way for the floodwaters

Poor management, climatic changes and environmental damage are to blame for the havoc caused by flooding

Make way for the floodwaters


ecently several events of urban floods, flash floods, glacial lake outbursts and torrential rainfall caused havoc around the globe, affecting human lives, infrastructure, livestock, roads and bridges. In West Virginia, US, 44 people were unaccounted for after a flood swept away homes. 14 people were rescued in Tennessee, US. Around 50,000 people have been affected in Australia due to flooding. In Bangladesh, around 4.3 million people have been affected and 90,000 displaced. In India, around 5 million have been impacted and over 200,000 have been displaced due to heavy monsoon rainfall. In China, traffic was disrupted in several cities due to heavy rain.

Pakistan is also among the countries affected by monsoon rainfall. According to National Disaster Management Authority, 165 deaths have been reported from different parts of Pakistan, 171 people have been injured, five bridges and five shops have been destroyed, 781 houses have been damaged partially, and 350 destroyed fully. 1,319 livestock have been lost in the recent monsoon spell.

The main cause of the flooding is increasing global warming. It is linked to increasing heatwaves because warmer air carries more water, resulting in more intense precipitation. Climate change causes forest fires and during heavy rain, debris flows and burned forests create exacerbating impacts. However, there are several other reasons which lead to devastating effects.

Pakistan experienced 57,445 fire incidents between July 2019 and July 2022, as per Global Forest Watch. In the year 2021, an estimated area of 38 kha (thousands of hectares) was burnt. Most of the forest fires were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (2.04 kha) followed by the Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh.

The top reason after climate change is poor planning in urban settings, leaving little or no room for water to flow during heavy precipitation. Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi are the worst examples of this. The cities are expanding without proper planning hence there is more urban flooding.

Deforestation is another factor exacerbating the impact of floods. Trees can hold water. This slows the speed of water so that there is less damage. According to Global Forest Watch, from 2001 to 2021, Pakistan lost 9.75 kha (thousands of hectares) of tree cover, equivalent to a 1.0 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 3.56Mt of CO emissions. The major cover loss in these years has been in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, i.e., 8.76 kha compared to an average of 1.22 kha. It is the province that reported planting 1 billion trees.

Poor drains also play a significant role in exacerbating the flooding. There is no waste management system in place in many towns. The drains meant to carry excess water are thus clogged with plastic and other domestic waste. In the original plan for Karachi, there were six drains for excess water removal. However, most of the drains have either been blocked by waste or covered by concrete. The result is that, now, water enters people’s houses and we see cars floating on the roads.

The top reason, after climate change, is the poor planning in urban settings, leaving little or no room for water to flow during heavy precipitation. Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi are worst examples of this. The cities are expanding without proper planning resulting in increasing urban flooding. 

According to Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, an unprecedented 126 millimetres (4.96 inches) of rain had fallen in three hours in Karachi. The water is too much for the soil to absorb or the drains to carry. According to various news resources, around 30 people have died in Karachi alone in the month of July.

The situation in Nullah Leh in Rawalpindi is no different. Lahore too has its share of the problem. The city planners are apparently still not making any allowances for climate change.

The siltation and sedimentation of the reservoirs is reducing their capacity to retain water. The total storage in major reservoirs i.e. Tarbela, Mangla and Chashma was 13.516 million-acre feet (MAF) as per estimates of the Federal Flood Commission. This has been reduced to 9.875 MAF.

The floods also damage crops, infrastructure, healthcare sector and human and animal lives. An important but least talked about area is the mental health of the families who repeatedly experience flooding. Losing dear ones, houses, livestock and small businesses leaves many in trauma and depression. There is a need for counselling those people so that they can contribute to the society in the future.

The Forest Departments need to control forest fires. They should be trained and equipped with the latest technology so that timely action can prevent loss of precious forest cover. Human-induced forest fires should be dealt with the full force of law. A report on how the Margallah fire Tiktoker was dealt with is still awaited.

While the previous government claims credit for planting a large number of trees, it appears that trees were also cut at an alarming rate. The mafia involved in deforestation should be stopped. Heavy fines should be imposed on the culprits. There is also a need to expand wetlands and natural depressions for recharge of groundwater during excess rain.

There is a need for proper waste management systems. Pakistan does not have a national policy on this so far. We need to learn from countries like Germany, the United States and China and start treating solid waste instead of dumping it into drains. The drains should be cleaned and their capacity restored. So far only one drain in Karachi has been cleaned. The rest remain clogged.

The flood carrying capacity of the rivers needs to increase. People living on drain and river embankments should move away. New housing schemes should avoid the mistakes of the past. More opportunities in remote areas should be provided so that rural to urban migration can be managed.

The latest contingency plan of the National Disaster Management Authority is quite comprehensive. It should be implemented thoroughly.

The writer is an environmental expert based in the United States. She is also a senior visiting researcher at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad. She tweets at @S_Maryam8.

Make way for the floodwaters