Why Flood Management Fails in Pakistan?

By Dr Mir Sadaat

This aerial view shows a flooded residential area in Dera Allah Yar town after heavy monsoon rains in Jaffarabad district, Balochistan province on August 30, 2022. – Aid efforts ramped up across flooded Pakistan on August 30 to help tens of millions of people affected by relentless monsoon rains that have submerged a third of the country and claimed more than 1,100 lives. (Photo by Fida HUSSAIN / AFP)

Floods are the prime calamity affecting Pakistan as the country is influenced by seasonal monsoon floods (the most serious) as well as flash floods. Recent flood disasters have brought severe impacts, affecting livelihoods, damaging properties and infrastructures, and taking lives. So far in total, nearly 1.2 million houses have been damaged and some 569,000 houses destroyed. Floods have damaged nearly 6,700 km of roads and 269 bridges. The number of districts officially notified as being ‘calamity hit’ has risen to 81, with most in Balochistan, followed by Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Nearly 800,000 refugees live in calamity-notified districts. Schooling has reportedly been interrupted for more than 3.5 million children nationwide, with some 22,000 schools reportedly damaged and over 5,500 schools being used to host people who have been displaced. According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), more than 1,480 people died, and almost 12,800 have been injured. More than 660,000 people are in relief camps, although the displaced population numbers are much higher, and more than 33 million are affected (most of them in Sindh and Balochistan Province).

No doubt the flooding was a natural disaster but it surely was compounded by the inactions and actions of people and state combined.  The key to successful response to emergencies like this is quick and effective early response. This was only possible if the right information was available at the right place at the right time. Thanks to limited research analysis culture in Pakistan, guess work coupled with hit and trial was the only option available to the state. Pakistan was blindsided due to non-availability of good data and plans.  The disaster was compounded as we lacked proper rules for land usage and building codes or we have the codes but failed to implement them. Building schools, hospitals, and neighbourhoods in flood-prone areas increased their exposure to disasters. Disaster management spotlights these risks and presents ideas to use land in safer ways. Well-coordinated responses to disasters require prior planning. This helps ensure fast, effective response efforts and limits duplicated efforts.

Flood disaster management in Pakistan is heavily based on a top-down approach. At the very top is the NDMA running a national crisis and disaster management mechanism. This authority was established with the objective of co-ordinating relief operations at the Federal, Provincial and District levels so that assistance can be provided to flood victims in an orderly and effective manner. NDMA is basically a reactive machinery, as it reacts to major floods that have occurred. It is theoretically responsible for all the operations. In reality, however, it coordinates operations at the national level and overlooks operations at the province level. Much of the operations in each province are left to be run by the respective authorities. There is also seriously lacking in terms of stakeholders participation. This is likely due to heavy dependence of communities on government, and the reluctance of government to relinquish responsibilities to the public. Public apathy may also be a reason for low public participation in disaster management. NGOs and other stakeholders should be involved right from the beginning from pre-disaster preparedness to rescue and reconstruction. NGOs would be particularly effective in creating awareness and education on disasters. The disaster management mechanism should also adopt more non-structural measures, adopt state-of-the-art technology and cooperate internationally with other countries for addressing transboundary disasters.

Presently, our flood relief are largely outdated reactive approach based on opinions and wishes. The lack of interaction and cooperation amongst government agencies dealing with floods, the bureaucratic nature of government agencies, and the victims’ reluctance to relocate makes rehabilitation further complex. Other contexts, largely structural, such as persistent poverty, low residential and occupational mobility, and ethnic culture have also contributed to increased vulnerability to flood hazards amongst specific communities, mainly the poor. Thus, in order to better manage floods and move towards greater flood loss reduction, flood management must be given a higher salience on policy level. In a country where poverty reduction and income equity amongst all races are targets of achievement, the reduction of flood loss appears to be an important vehicle towards achieving those targets. The government should also adopt a more pro-active and dynamic approach towards flood management, rather than adhere to a reactive approach. The current flood management model lacks a multi-disciplinary approach that should include a well-balanced mixture of structural and non-structural measures. In this respect, the employment of legislation to control floodplain encroachment, the development of hill land, and urbanisation is vital.

Apart from this we also need to address many constraints in post-flood disaster support systems. One is the “Politization of Flood Disasters” whereby politicians and political parties politicise floods to their advantage. Another constraint is the “Mediasation of Flood Disasters” whereby the media becomes a potent force in either reducing the effects of a disaster or exacerbating it. It is a factor that significantly affects disaster management. So powerful is the role of the media that it can either help a nation address a disaster or make the country look bad.

The road ahead is challenging not only for the government but also for the society as whole. Resilience & volunteerism has been the hallmark of our society during crisis but we need to adhere to a sense of nationalism even after that. On the other hand it is high time for government and political elite to get out of their cocoons and serve the humanity at the fullest.  

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