Although the impacts of climate change have been visible in Pakistan for the past many years but the floods this year have demonstrated beyond any doubt how devastating they are for the people, economy and environment. The real question is how to combat them effectively in order to survive.
Climate change experts and scientists have a consensus that the way to combat the impacts of climate change is through adaptation, and learning to live in a changing environment on Earth.
It is impossible to control the occurrence of any natural hazard including floods. In fact perennial riverine floods are the harbinger of fertility and vitality for the land, they are the guarantors of good harvest and they flush the creeks, replenish the deltas and reinvigorate the flora, fauna, fish, birds and aquatic life. The flood waters draining into the sea is what cools it down, dilutes the salts and protects the land from erosion. The riverine floods are a boon for a country like Pakistan where 75 percent of the population is still directly or indirectly associated with agriculture.
Floods are the custodians of civilizations that thrived in the Indus valley thousands of years ago and the livelihood, crops and habitat of the people was the gift of the annual floods. Had there been no floods, there would have been no civilization because there was simply no known mechanism of irrigation by the river water. The crops were irrigated either through dug wells, rain water or by the ponds that were filled inland by the flood waters from the river when it inundated the land. The flood also brought the priceless alluvium from the Himalayas and when it receded it left its precious gift on the land in Punjab and Sindh which made it fertile.
These lands still receive the gift from the Himalayas every year but the only difference is that floods have now been associated with disaster.
Riverine floods are not a disaster and neither is rainfall. There are no natural disasters but it’s the vulnerabilities of people and their settlements along with poor governance that turns the hazards into disasters. In addition to that there are the impacts of climate change making things worse. The average temperature of the planet is increasing, the carbon emissions are still rising, and due to climate change, the weather patterns have turned erratic. Already disadvantaged communities and informal human settlements have become even more vulnerable because of lack of preparedness.
In fact perennial riverine floods are the harbinger of fertility and vitality for the land, they are the guarantors of good harvest and they flush the creeks, replenish the deltas and reinvigorate the flora, fauna, fish, birds and aquatic life.
Pakistan is now perhaps the country most affected by climate change, and the recent rain-induced floods have been unprecedented in their magnitude, intensity and scale, impacting almost one-third of the country.
However the disaster Pakistan is facing currently is not just because of climate change but the direct result of bad governance, years of neglect and mismanagement of the water resources and natural drainage systems. The exponential increase in population in Pakistan has led to massive unplanned, informal and unauthorised housing settlements all over the country in towns and villages alike.
In many cities and towns people have encroached upon the natural storm drains and constructed infrastructure on them which has created immense hurdles in drainage, and has repeatedly caused urban flooding. In the rural areas also a large number of different communities are living inside the river basins which are inundated naturally by the perennial riverine floods. The communities living in valleys directly under the mountains from which hill torrents bring flash floods without much warning are perhaps the most vulnerable and suffer repeated losses.
Another reason for the flooding is that many highways or bridge infrastructure that has been constructed in the flood plains acts as a bulwark or an embankment for the flood water and the water is trapped inland because of the ill-constructed structures.
The shortsighted planning, bad development, poor governance, vulnerability of the communities, their lack of awareness regarding climate change and inadequate or nonexistent early warning systems in most rural areas in Sindh and Balochistan are the important factors that turn the hazard into a disaster.
The way forward for preventing future disasters is to increase the resilience of people living in hazard prone areas and to ensure that their lives, livelihoods and houses are not impacted badly because of the hazard. The more resilient they are, the less damage would be caused by any natural hazard. It is of paramount importance to reduce the poverty of the people and provide them with a social security net.
The resilience of the people is increased by reducing poverty, improving basic education and health facilities, raising awareness regarding climate change and adaptation, providing them with more opportunities of work and upward mobility and building climate proof housing which can withstand the impacts of natural hazards.
The communities must be provided technical and financial assistance, easy loan schemes and approved design options for houses which are compatible with their landscape. People must be encouraged to adopt recommended designs and correct the mistakes in building informal weak structures.
The resilience of the cities, towns and villages is increased by developing infrastructure which is compatible with nature and does not hamper the natural flow of rivers and hill torrents or constrict storm drains. It is impossible to control nature through building more cement and steel infrastructure. The best way to go forward is to learn to live in harmony with nature and find the natural rhythm, where man and nature become one being, and move in synchronized movements like a tango. When the river moves forward, people have to back up and then when the river recedes people can move in the river basin and use it, temporarily, as much as the river allows.
Poverty reduction and increasing the resilience of its population, especially of the ones living below the poverty line, should be the top priority of the government if it is serious about combating disasters. Temporary solution of contingency planning and doling out relief items would not be of any use and the people will remain vulnerable. The government should initiate a massive reform programme for the people stuck in a vicious circle of poverty.
The most important agenda item for now should be the program for rebuilding of the hundreds of villages which were damaged in the floods. It should be started simultaneously in all affected districts using better techniques, sturdier designs and natural material so that houses are climate resilient and eco-friendly. The communities must be provided technical and financial assistance, easy loan schemes and approved design options for houses which are compatible with their landscape. People must be encouraged to adopt recommended designs and correct the mistakes in building informal weak structures.
The government must devise a comprehensive system of approval of all constructions in every village so as to ensure that the water ways are not hampered and the storm drains are not encroached upon by anyone. Design and construction training must be given and a campaign launched to encourage people to follow the recommendations for reconstruction.
This is a rare opportunity to rebuild better and save the country, and the people from another disaster in the future.