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The crisis of too much and too little water

Had a clear mandate been given to a flood management organisation to be the focal agency, the losses in Chitral and Peshawar could have been minimised

The crisis of too much and too little water
Aftermath of wrong policies.

While the current monsoon season is still on, the July rains have revealed that despite recurrent floods for the last 5 years, we still lack a right set of policies and practices. In order to avoid generalisation, let us discuss the institutional, financial, and politico-economical aspects of these policies.

But first we should know that one of the major manifestations of climate change in Pakistan is the “state of availability of water”; either scarcity of water or abundance of it. The country receives its major chunk of average annual precipitation in a few weeks, and the rest of the year remains dry. We are not in a position to store water when it is abundantly available and this leads to a situation where uncontrolled water causes floods.

The flip side of lack of water storage capacity causes a drought-like situation during dry spells, when one has to meet the competing demands of water for irrigation, energy generation, and both domestic and commercial consumption. Not only we observe extreme variations in availability of water every year, certain regions of Pakistan face the consequences of these extremes in the same manner year after year.

It is said that natural calamities cannot be avoided. However, with a right set of policies and practices, one can prevent those calamities from turning into a human disaster.

We are living in a country with abundant government and limited governance. To begin with, more than 22 organisations and departments, including NDMA, PDMA, DDMA, ERRA, Crisis Management Cells, Federal Flood Commission, Meteorological Department, Rescue1122, Civil Defence, Irrigation departments, civil works departments, and municipalities, etc, have a direct role to play in flood management but are still not able to deliver as a team.

True, that efficiency of many of the above-mentioned organisations have improved as compared to the last years. However, one still needs to see how this efficiency gets converted into feasible and effective plans (and practices) for early warning, rescue, relief, and rehabilitation.

To me, the missing links, in institutional aspect of flood management are overlapping mandates and ambiguous division of labour. There is no focal organisation, with a clear mandate to not only liaise with other departments for devising a flood management strategy but also to get that strategy implemented.

After repeated floods in Pakistan, this discussion should move from water reservoirs for irrigation or power generation to managing flood waters through reservoirs.

In the absence of such a focal organisation, adhocism prevails. For instance, meteorology department provides weather predictions to more than 100 offices/departments. Many simply ignore its prediction. Some do consider them but can’t take any action, while some do take these predictions seriously but success of their actions depends on other institutions.

For example, NDMA may keep its agencies alert after receiving met office forecast. However, it has no mandate to seek compliance that inhabitants of low-lying areas, or those settled in dry riverine beds have been shifted to safe places. Nor has it a mandate to check whether civil works and irrigation departments have actually reinforced and strengthened the dykes around important locations.

Without such mandate, the inter-organisational coordination and pre-monsoon flood preparedness meetings become very mechanical, which in turn leads to preparedness plans either for “best case scenarios”, or in rare cases for “business as usual”. Whereas, climate change adaptation is planning about the “worst case scenario” and then implementing it.

I argue that despite their pre-monsoon meetings, flood management agencies were not prepared for the “worst case scenario” neither in Chitral where glacier lake outburst created havoc nor in Peshawar where Budhani nullah (obstructed by solid waste and encroachments) brought a disaster.

Had a clear mandate been given to an organisation to be the focal agency for flood management, the losses to people of Chitral and Peshawar could have been minimised.

Institutional aspect of flood management is directly linked with financial aspects. “Money is not everything, but everything is nothing without money,” was not said in flood management perspective. However, it becomes very relevant, when one observes that under-financing is one of the reasons for under-performance of the institutions mandated for flood management.

Flood preparedness requires reinforcing and re-strengthening of infrastructure (besides other things); flood rescue requires not only the trained human resources, but equipment like boats, helicopters, and heavy machinery, etc; flood relief requires targeting the flood survivors, reaching out to them and meeting their immediate needs for shelter, food, medicines; whereas flood rehabilitation requires bringing back resilience both among the communities as well as in infrastructure.

While federal and provincial governments do allocate some funds for infrastructural projects, there is none for flood rescue and relief. Thus, we turn natural calamities into human disaster.

A political-economy lens needs to be applied to investigate how institutions and decision-making responds to crises of too much and too little water, as well as oscillations between those extremes, including managing volatility as a chronic state, as compared with emergency response.

Water allocations under IRSA, for example, commonly assume average flows rather than the range of variability. Likewise, flood and scarcity tend to be located in separate governance/management ‘silos’ with different agencies responsible, without mechanisms for coordination. An example of possible linkage is infrastructure designed for ‘multiple use’, e.g, dams which are built and operated so as to have both water storage and flood control functions.

It is pertinent to note that construction of water reservoirs, especially dams which were to be constructed for irrigation and power generation purposes, have been a source of political controversy in Pakistan for the last many decades, making the issue of dams and reservoirs a political taboo.

With extreme variability in water availability; there is a need for renewed discussion and political consensus around water reservoirs. After repeated floods in Pakistan, this discussion should move from water reservoirs for irrigation or power generation to managing flood waters through reservoirs. The government needs to prioritise construction of such dams and reservoirs to contain flood losses.

Breaching of dykes is a routine measure to save strategic installations during floods. Yet, breaching at wrong places, in most cases to save the lands and properties of the influential is one major politico-economic factor that has been turning floods into human disaster.

Likewise, turning a blind eye to encroachments along rivers and dumping of solid waste in drainage channels in major cities also increases flood losses and is completely avoidable if building bylaws and cities’ master plans are implemented in a letter and spirit.

Climate extremes are entry points to examine how institutional structures, decision-making processes and power relations lead to winners and losers in different societal groups. Is anyone there in policy circles to use this entry point and try to reduce the vulnerabilities among excluded and marginalised groups of the society who are, unfortunately, made to believe that their sufferings are not policy-driven but the will of God.

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri

abid suleri
The writer heads Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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