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Managing hydro disasters

All hydro disaster management activities need to be streamlined in pre, during and after phases to minimise risks

Managing hydro disasters
Learning lessons in disaster.

Pakistan ranks amongst the most disaster susceptible countries in the world. It has witnessed large scale natural disasters over the years. Especially its settlements along water bodies are exposed to various water-related disasters commonly known as hydro disasters.

Over the period of time, reduction in the River Indus flow due to construction of dams and barrages has badly affected the environment, mainly due to lack of freshwater along the delta and rising sea levels causing sea intrusion.

Sea intrusion has engulfed thousands of acres of agricultural land in Thatta and Badin districts, in the Sindh province. Furthermore, the brackish sea water has salinised the groundwater. It is not just affecting agriculture but also damaging the coastal ecosystems. Other water-related disasters, such as annual floods, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), flash floods and cloud bursts, which also fall in the category of hydro disasters, also affect lives and livelihoods and displace millions of people every year in Pakistan.

Studies inform that water related disasters can be attributed to 70 per cent of the overall economic losses attributed to natural disasters of varying kinds, globally, since 1992. Considering the deteriorating impacts of climate change, South Asia is expected to experience more variability and increased frequency of extreme weather events.

Extreme meteorological and hydrological events transform water into a core hydro disaster source. However, there are many missing links in the process of disaster management, especially in the case of hydro disasters.

A latest policy brief titled ‘Hydro Disasters’, published by Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan, a think tank working for effective management of hydro disasters, highlights how lack of planning and preparedness severely hampered Pakistan’s response to the 2005 earthquake and the deadly floods of 2010 and 2011. It considers the absence of a well-organised and effective disaster response strategy, insufficient resources and lack of coordination as some of the major contributing factors to the failure of effective disaster management in Pakistan.

Effective preparedness of government institutions assigned with the responsibility of managing disasters in Pakistan before, during and after phases of disasters is critically important to minimise losses.

Pakistan should work in an integrated manner with the private sector, civil society and other governments to address the issue. Besides innovative solutions, water needs to be sustainably managed and a behavioral change is much needed to make Pakistan resilient to hydro disasters.

Effective local governance can lead to resilience building in the hazard prone communities. This can help manage local response and relief efforts, engage communities in decision-making, disseminate warnings, ensure long-term livelihood security, establish public-private partnerships through sustainable tourism, cultural festivals, and provide sustainable health and education facilities.

One must note that hazards can transform into disasters, if not assessed and mitigated systematically. Different factors, such as uneven population density, unplanned development, poverty, pressure on natural resources, natural hazards, sea intrusion, soil erosion, migration, deforestation and loss of habitat contribute to it.

In order to curb the transformation of hazards into disasters, the policy brief presents some strategies, such as controlling uneven population growth and density, implementing appropriate building codes, ensuring planned developments and poverty alleviation through education, capacity building, agro-economics and disaster preparedness.

All hydro disaster management activities are focused only on response after the disaster has taken place. It is important to understand that response is an integral part of disaster management, which comprises management and response in pre-, during and after phases.

The policy brief recommends enhancing the role of grassroots level organisations from district to village levels in Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR/DRM) planning and implementation to gain better results. “Strengthening of District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) is the best solution to optimally cope with hydro hazards. DDMA authorities perform a pivotal role in the development and timely implementation of effective DRR plans at the district level, and should be given more importance and resources by defining clear roles and responsibilities”, the policy brief quoted.

Dr Muhi Usamah, the Disaster Risk Management specialist at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pakistan, called for institutionalising DRR in daily agenda and making it as part of the development process i.e. an important element of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“The top-down and bottom-up approaches should be adopted, which means that measures taken should involve DRR policy development and community members. As of now, addressing disaster risk is seen as responsibilities of specific agencies, such as National and Provincial Disaster Management Authorities. However, when it comes to DRR mainstreaming, all line departments must take part. For example, inclusion of DRR in the education curriculum will have a long-term DRR impact,” said Dr Usamah.

Dr. Usamah cited different examples to address hydro disasters through structural and non-structural hydro disaster mitigations. A good example is Chitral, where communities are hit by disasters every year. In non-structural hydro-disaster mitigation, the risk can be minimised by enforcing a DRR-compliant land use planning by restricting the settlement in the areas that are supposed to be buffer zones. The growth of community in such areas is uncontrollable thus increasing their level of vulnerability.

“In structural measures, the conceptual solution should be simple, such as building resistant infrastructure. In post-disaster situation, building back better and resilient infrastructure should be promoted to avoid the same level of damage and to better strengthen local infrastructures after disasters,” added Dr Usamah.

It is equally important to build the capacity of district level implementers to respond to hazards and disasters. The implementers should have the authority to directly act on DRR/DRM roles with the help of communities and civil society organisations (CSOs), which can contribute to resilience building. Furthermore, communication, coordination and capacity of departments working for disaster response, relief and management should be improved through ongoing trainings and by utilising the latest technology and skills related to early warning systems (EWS), evacuation, and building resilient infrastructure. Resource allocation is needed to improve the capacity of civil agencies.

Lessons are to be learned from The Netherlands, one of the world’s top ten economies in export volume and ranked among the top twenty for GDP, despite being geographically one of the smallest countries in the world. The Dutch are famously known as the ‘Water Champions’ for their expertise in water. One must note that 1/3 of their land is below sea level, 1/3 at the sea level and 1/3 above the sea level. This off course makes the Dutch highly vulnerable to hydro disasters. However, they have successfully adapted to cope with it. This is evident from the fact that they have reclaimed almost 17 per cent of their land mass from the sea and lakes.

Henk Ovink, is the Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, who also advised the US government on the ways to defend New York and New Jersey against rising waters after the 2012 Hurricane Sandy. About Hurricane Sandy, let’s not forget that it was the second costliest hurricane in the US history, which cost the government about US $75 billion.

“We need to work on comprehensive long-term approaches globally, where environmental, economic and social challenges are addressed. Getting this right can only be done in an inclusive and collaborative way, managed transparently and accountably by public-private partnerships”, said Henk Ovink.

There’s a lot for Pakistan to learn from the Dutch. It should work in an integrated manner with the private sector, civil society and other governments to address the issue. Besides innovative solutions, water needs to be sustainably managed and a behavioral change is much needed to make Pakistan resilient to hydro disasters. 

Syed Muhammad Abubakar

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