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Man-made catastrophe

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Disaster

by Ali Tauqeer Sheikh

PAKISTAN is in the midst of a man-made disaster. Our flawed development model has made our lives insecure in both urban and rural areas. This pattern of development has robbed us of the monsoons — our season of romance, raindrops, walking in the rain, and singing songs. The monsoons have always been part of our folklore and poetry. They are the soul of our culture, heritage and history, and are connected with our lives, lifestyles and livelihoods. Historically, we have not dreaded the monsoons, but now we have begun to fear them.

From the earliest agrarian settlements in Mehrgarh to the Indus Valley civilisation and centuries later the Mughal period, we have coexisted with seasonal floods and prolonged droughts. But the development path chosen since then has resulted in a competitive, even zero-sum relationship with our natural environment — forests, waterways, waterbodies and ecosystems.

Gravity propels the water flow, but our development model is insisting on defying gravity. Our settlements, infrastructure, economy, livelihoods and livestock, all have become unnecessarily vulnerable and fragile primarily because we have been obstructing water’s flow. Can this season of biblical rains and deadly floods provide us with an opportunity to reflect and re-envision our development model?

The scale, scope and spread of the 2022 floods have surpassed the super floods of 2010. The monsoon rains have created unprecedented havoc in all regions of the country stretching from Gilgit-Baltistan and KP to Sindh, southern Punjab and Balochistan. No doubt the downpour itself was unprecedented in many areas, but the monsoon waters are furious primarily because we have choked their passages and encroached on banks and shoulders. The floodwaters are only reclaiming their right of way. Infrastructure and community assets, including the ones developed since the super floods eg the 11 small dams in Balochistan, are being washed away, damaged or destroyed.

Clearly, no lessons have been drawn or applied to disaster-proof subsequent infrastructural development. Neighbourhoods in villages, small towns, and larger cities have no rainwater or floodwater channels. This absence overwhelms sewerage lines and pollutes drinking water supplies where they exist. Electricity poles are exposed and there are no plans to flood-proof them. Roads and railway tracks are often without culverts; they continue to obstruct the water flow. Land-use changes happen at will, resulting in urban sprawls as well as grand housing societies and villagers’ unplanned hamlets, often clashing with the annual flood cycles.

Flooding has emerged as the worst type of climate-induced disaster for Pakistan, perhaps the deadliest.

To top it all, the country has become a prisoner of the four deadly sins of development: i) top-down development planning and resource allocation, in the belief that it can reduce local vulnerabilities, ii) disparate development schemes, often randomly selected, thinking that it will add up to a sustainable growth rate, iii) archaic and poor standards for infrastructure development, presuming that it will withstand increasing resilience needs, and iv) the statist development model, a political system that has substantial centralised control over social and economic affairs, thinking of it as a substitute for local governance institutions or national resilience standards.

Climate-induced flooding is caused primarily by two key processes that also lead to changes in the monsoon patterns: first, warmer air will produce more rain. As global air temperatures increase, the clouds can hold more water vapour resulting in more water-intense or torrential downpours. It is because of this basic science that many climate models project that the South Asian monsoons will see heavier, frequent, and untimely rains.

Second, the seawater rise has increased coastal flooding but the higher levels of temperatures at sea give higher temperature points to the clouds and indeed greater ability to enter farther over land. The increasing frequency of flooding in Balochistan is sometimes attributed to these westerly weather influences, rather than the traditional eastern monsoon originating from the Bay of Bengal. This change in the weather cycle seems to have added to the frequency and severity of floods in the typically non-monsoon areas of Balochistan.

Climate change is fuelling flooding in Pakistan. Flooding has indeed emerged as the worst type of climate-induced disaster for the country, perhaps the deadliest. It is making flooding less natural and more disastrous. The frequency of heavy flooding is also increasing.

After recent flooding in the Elbe and other rivers in eastern Germany, studies estimated that flooding was nine times more likely to be triggered by global climate change. Floods are complicated not only because of the changes in weather patterns; it is also due to the position or location of infrastructure, its designs and the material used to enhance resilience levels. The infrastructure destroyed by floods — houses, roads, dams, embankments, power lines, bridges — is costly to rebuild.

Not ready to accept it as a grand failure of public sector development planning, the federal and provincial governments were quick to blame climate change, instead of poor early warning systems, poorly functioning government departments, poor building designs, construction guidelines, material standards and of course, the unplanned growth of human settlements.

Instead of accepting that our development model is non-inclusive and because of that it is neither disaster-resilient nor climate-smart, policymakers, media and public policy analysts are all creating misleading and fatalist myths as if no steps can be taken to reduce vulnerabilities.

The governments’ response to the loss of lives, livestock, houses, and standing crops was prompt and predictable: extend emergency supplies through disaster-management authorities, followed by cash grants through the Benazir Income Support Programme. Little attention has been given to calculating economic losses or the cost of climate-resilient reconstruction.

Pakistan’s previous effort to ‘build back better’, after the 2005 earthquake hasn’t succeeded. How best can the national and provincial policymakers respond to increasing floods and get a grip on climate resilience?

As architect Arif Hasan said in these pages recently ‘It’ll flood again’. The floods will become costlier unless Pakistan’s response integrates adaptation and mitigation to reap the co-benefits of resilience. Instead of stopping at cash grant disbursements, it’s time to create a special-purpose vehicle for risk transfer and insurance in five key areas: the lives of bread earners, shelter, livestock, standing crops and small and micro enterprises.

This essay was first published in Dawn


Ali Tauqeer Sheikh is an expert on climate change and development.


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