The horrifying memories of the super floods of 2010 are still vivid in the minds of people of Pakistan who witnessed huge destruction of properties and loss of human lives. In the aftermath of floods, various inquires were carried out to identify reasons as to why these could not be managed in a better way to minimise losses and to fix responsibilities.
Of the reasons identified, one of the major ones was the presence of structures in river beds and flood plains. Due to this, the risk to properties and lives of inhabitants increases as they are directly affected by the flood water overflowing from rivers. Secondly, as these structures obstruct the flow of flood water, its level rises and speed increases. This happens also for the reason that its path narrows down and it has to rush through.
Years down the road, there is a perception among people that no lessons have been learnt from those super floods and the settlements and structures in the flood plains are intact. However, the government of Punjab disagrees and claims it has done the needful and passed a law called The Punjab Flood Plain Regulations Act 2016 to regulate land use in these areas.
Under this law, the designated officers of the Irrigation Department have the authority to designate any land as flood plain and remove unauthorised construction with the help of police, local government etc. Any person resisting removal of unauthorised construction can be arrested, imprisoned up to 30 days and fined up to Rs200,000.
Though this law is a step in the right direction, a major reservation of certain quarters is that there is nothing about removal and relocation of the existing constructed areas.
Muhammad Suleman Khan, Chairman Sindh Tas Water Council (Indus Water Council), a non-profit working on water issues, says though a new law has been introduced, such clear-cut instructions existed in the past as well. Unfortunately, he says, the Irrigation Department could not get these implemented and all this happened right under their nose.
Khan asserts, “It is time the rivers are rehabilitated and aligned, and their banks covered with vegetation and trees to make them flow in their right direction.” He outrightly rejects the idea of issuance of NoCs for construction by the designated canal officers (a provision under the new law) and suggests that only agriculture shall be allowed in flood plains. “There are international best practices to be followed that define which trees shall be planted right on the bank, which at a distance from it and which crops to be sowed in flood plains.”
Khan says the flood plains are agriculturally rich and water level is also high due to the recharging of the aquifer due to their proximity to the rivers. “This is why people settle near these areas and involve themselves in agriculture.” This, he says, can be allowed in certain conditions but allowing construction of commercial areas, residences and factories here is criminal. “This causes destruction of properties as well as loss of human lives.”
Under the new law, the land amidst the natural course of a river, area of a lake or wetland, low plain which is adjacent to a river and is likely to be flooded, area which is likely to be inundated due to the operation of a breaching section, pond area of a barrage or dam and area likely to be used for construction of a dam or a barrage fall in the definition of flood plains.
The same law makes it binding on private parties and the government organisations to get an NoC from the concerned department in order to go ahead with construction in flood plains. The construction in this regards includes any excavation, laying of utility lines, road or rail line, construction of a bridge or any other structure and so on.
Sardar Asif Sial, a Lahore-based lawyer with specialty in environmental law, suggests that the settlements in flood plains (especially the residential) shall be relocated to safe zones and the state must bear this cost. He says there is a lot of state land where these people can be located and compensated to build their structures. Sial argues as the flood zones were used for these purposes due to the negligence of the government and utility lines were also provided (giving these structures legitimacy), it becomes the responsibility of the government to bear this cost.
Under the new law, there will be a Construction Approval Committee which, while granting permission to construction in a flood plain, considers the facts such as the obstruction the construction is likely to cause to the flow and its flood related impact, the pressing need for such construction, the safety of the construction and its impact on safety of other constructions or related areas; and the opinion of the designated canal officer on the application for permission to construct in the flood plain.
Habibullah Bodla, Chief of Monitoring at Programme Monitoring and Implementation Unit (PMIU), Punjab Irrigation Department and lead person regarding a study on flood risk assessment, tells TNS that the law is in force and the concerned canal officers are keeping a strong check on use of designated flood plains in the concerned areas.
He says they have carried out a comprehensive survey of all the flood plains next to and around all the rivers flowing in Punjab and compiled these along with their coordinates. In the report compiled after this survey, one can see these areas marked on maps as well as in tabulated form with exact latitude and longitude mentioned.
Bodla clarifies that though the existing structures, especially the villages in flood plains, are not being touched the department has asked the landlords cultivating crops in these areas to remove the dykes they have constructed themselves. Their purpose of having these in place is to stop the overflowing flood water from intruding into their fields, he adds.
Bodla says they are also hoping that some people will themselves relocate and others will refrain from doing construction here. “After 2010, floods have become a regular phenomenon that shall be a deterrent in itself.”