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Monsoon menace yet again - By: Naseer Memon, The News, 10th July 2016

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Monsoon has already descended on Pakistan. Weather pundits have forecast an ominous monsoon this year with an estimated 10-20 per cent higher rainfall. Considering the experience of devastating floods during recent years, this prediction has created pre-monsoon jitters.

Capricious climate has been dodging the weather predictors. Frequency and ferocity of floods have made monsoon a calamitous event in Pakistan for the past six consecutive years. Apocalyptic flood of 2010 has been followed by tormenting floods every year making it an annual feature in the country.

Ageing infrastructure, misplaced political priorities, absence of local government system and lack of risk reduction investments are some of the other factors that exacerbated the impact of these disasters. Every year flood impact is cured with short-term remedial measures rather than adopting a sustainable approach. Although frequency and severity of floods have gained momentum during recent years, Pakistan has been facing flood disasters since its creation. According to a report of the federal flood commission, the country has endured a cumulative financial loss of more than US $38.165 billion during the past 68 years. Around 12,177 people lost their lives, some 197,230 villages damaged/destroyed and an area more than 616,598 Sq.km was affected due to 23 major flood events that occurred in 1950, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 19981, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1995, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The upcoming monsoon is predicted to possibly bring torrential floods in the mountains of Suleiman range. In 2010, gushing flows of Suleiman range abruptly bloated the flow of Indus deriding all predictions of the volume of flood in Sindh. The province was set to receive a flood of 800,000 cusecs which eventually swelled to over 1.1 million cusecs causing an unprecedented devastation in vast areas on the right bank of Indus.

While riverine flood is relatively easy to forecast, spate flows of hill torrents act like a lurking enemy. Pakistan lacks a reliable early warning system to account for torrential floods generated from mountain ranges spread all over Pakistan. Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) takes pains to share regular information on weather outlook, but it lacks paraphernalia for timely early warning. An evasive weather trajectory requires more sophisticated network of radars and other warning systems.

The latest flood warning device was installed in 2004 and the oldest one in 1978 in the country. The archaic system needs to be supplanted with modern gadgets to ensure accuracy and timeliness of flood warning. The PMD proposed a project of Rs7 billion to the government to revamp the flood warning system with 21 radars, automation of 100 weather observatories, automatic weather stations and other interventions. However, the government has more pressing priorities — to splash money on fancy projects to hoodwink voters and attract media attention.

Weather boss, Ghualm Rasool, informed the Senate Standing Committee on Climate Change that 40 districts of Pakistan do not have any early warning system installed. Significance of early warning system is well-recognised in the contemporary world. Research findings of the world meteorological organisation suggest that every dollar ploughed into early warning system saves 36 dollars.

National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has recently developed a coordinated monsoon contingency plan. However, provinces need to gear up for monsoon frontal onslaught. Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMAs) have a pivotal role in confronting any critical situation in provinces. Districts have to play a cardinal role in case a disaster unfolds. Unfortunately, the District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) are non-existent for all practical purposes.

In absence of a functional local government system and dormant DDMAs, communities remain extremely vulnerable to hazards and disasters. DDMAs are a missing vital organ of the disaster management body. There is an urgent need to institutionalise PDMAs and DDMAs on professional footing. The provincial governments ought to empower them administratively and equip these bodies with professional human resource and ample financial resources.

Similarly, revitalisation of DDMAs is now long overdue. This is a specialised function and should not be trivialised as merely a seasonal obligation of deputy commissioners, who are already occupied with numerous administrative functions. DDMAs are the foundation tier of the official humanitarian structure and yet ignored by all provinces. Since disaster management is a provincial subject, therefore it is responsibility of the provincial governments to buttress this tier for effective disaster preparedness and response at local level.

According to the forecast of Meteorological Department, Sindh and Balochistan are likely to be smacked by abnormal monsoon rains this year. Sindh has a peculiar geography and topography that multiplies its susceptibility manifold. The province receives flows from all upstream rivers. After entering Sindh, the Indus river flows on a ridge with areas outside embankments situated lower than the river bed. This makes it impossible for the escaped flood water to return to the main channel at downstream.

Flood plain of Indus, locally called katcho area, gets inundated even with low to medium flood. However, rampant encroachment in the flood plain converts inundation into flood and causes displacement of katcho communities. Between Kashmore and Indus delta, the katcho area of Sindh is spread over more than two million acres. It is roughly divided into the present and the abandoned river channels (600,000 acres), forest lands (450,000 acres), roads, settlements and government structures (50,000 acres) and agriculture land (one million acres).

Reliable estimates of the population in Katcho are not available. However, a conservative estimate puts it close to one million. A report of Pakistan Institute of Labour and Research (PILER) mentions Katcho population in Sindh as 3.5 million. This explains a sizeable number of villages and people getting affected almost every year.

Last year, peak flow in the Indus was only around 700,000 cusecs; yet more than 3,500 villages were affected in Sindh and Punjab afflicting a population of more than 1.3 million. Considering the design discharges of various barrages, the volume of flow was much less than the critical threshold, yet large areas were submerged. Similarly, other natural flood scape channels are also choked with illegal encroachment.

The Sindh Assembly approved the Sindh Irrigation (Amendment) Act 2011 that declared encroachment of natural waterways as a non-bailable offence that may lead to ten years imprisonment and a fine of one million rupees. The law explicitly asked to remove all such encroachments within seven days. However, execution of such laws requires highest level of political commitment since most of these encroachments are erected by highly powerful political and other influential elements.

Embarking upon legislation without a roadmap and political will for execution and adherence is like growing economy without development. The government departments engaged in flood management have been expressing their angst on massively clogged natural waterways in Sindh, which may enrage floods to spillover thereby inundating adjacent settlements and bring destruction and displacement.

Increasing frequency and intensity of floods demand a comprehensive analysis and local level planning to undertake a range of integrated initiatives for risk reduction. The government has a chronic propensity to spring into action when disaster occurs. Billions of rupees are then lavished on post-disaster actions. However, relief cannot compensate pain and agony encountered by the affected communities. Their property, life and self-esteem could be protected with much lesser amount if properly invested in risk reduction measures.

Last year, the Sindh government allocated Rs108 million for “disaster preparedness and management project” but not a single rupee was released to implement this vital project of risk reduction. The NDMA’s National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) provides a comprehensive set of investments to this effect that can be adopted as an investment plan for risk reduction.

With shrinking volume and shifting priorities of international humanitarian aid, Pakistan has to rely upon its internal resources to confront the challenge of natural and human induced disasters. Limited financial resources to meet several competing demands merit judicious allocation and expenditure in the right direction. Standing on the higher rung of climate change vulnerability and exposed to multifarious hazards, Pakistan needs an enhanced focus on disaster risk reduction to avert any catastrophe in the coming years.

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