Unprecedented floods left devastation and human suffering behind

Syeda Alina Saeed

This year’s flood in Pakistan has affected 33mln people and has caused an estimated USD 30 billion in damages to infrastructure and economic activity. 1,700 people lost their lives and some 13,000 were injured. It is the biggest climate disaster even among the developed countries.

“Compared to the floods of 2010, this is a completely different challenge,” notes Minister of Planning, Development and Special Initiatives and Chairman of Disaster Initiatives Ahsan Iqbal.

Pakistan is not new to floods; the country’s rivers swell up and cause floods every few years. Both the government and the communities know how to deal with floods. But usually, these are riverine floods, mostly in the north of the country. By contrast, this year, the monsoons hit mostly southern Punjab, south Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh, and affected 12 poorest districts of the country most severely. Typically, these areas receive only light to moderate rainfall, and have no expertise to handle heavy rains.

The change in the rain pattern can be illustrated by its effect on the Mangla Dam in the Mirpur District of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. During a typical year, monsoons fill up Mangla dam in July and August, but this year, the dam has remained only half-full through the summer, because the rain pattern has shifted to other areas of the country.

After 3 months of non-stop rains, southern districts, including Jafarabad, Nasirabad, Dera Murad Jamali, Dadu, Larkana and areas west of Indus River – have been covered by a sea of water, while flash floods wiped out infrastructure in the northern areas. The entire province of Balochistan was cut off from the rest of the country. “Food supply, houses, livelihoods are all gone; people have nothing left,” explains Ahsan Iqbal. “Damages to the eco system and infrastructure are immense.” Government estimates suggest that more than 800,000 houses were destroyed and another 1.3 million houses got damaged.

Vital communication links with were destroyed. The floods damaged multiple transmission lines and some 3,500 telecommunication towers. In the north, communications with communities and electricity lines were cut off. More than 13,000 kilometers of roads, over 400 bridges as well as multiple stretches of railways were damaged and a key railway bridge between Sukkur and Quetta got destroyed. Hill torrents and flash floods destroyed most of the infrastructure of the Kachi canal and Patfeeder canal, which used to feed some 2,000 acres of land.

Equally importantly, villagers lost all the grain supplies which are typically stored between the seasons and used it for seed for the next planting season. Without external support, these farmers would not be able to plant their next crop, earn their livelihoods and produce enough grains to feed their communities long-term. Approximately 1.1 million heads of livestock, and vast amounts of animal feed and pastures have perished as well, further reducing the ability of rural communities to generate food and income.

The human cost of this calamity is immense. There are thousands of displaced mothers who are malnourished or need immediate hospitalization to give birth; they have no hospitals or medical facilities. The areas hit by the floods were already suffering from malnourishment, and the floods have made the situation that much worse. “We are worried for the health of mothers, infants and children,” says Ahsan Iqbal. “In collaboration with UNICEF and other international development organizations, we are working to address this huge challenge.”

Hyper-malnutrition threatens to have disastrous consequences for the future of the country. Lack of nutritious food will compromise of physical and mental capacities of children, affecting their ability to contribute to the national economy for the years to come.

“The most painful part is that during our last tenure in the government, we have developed a massive 10-year national flood protection program in collaboration with Dutch consultants and a local company Nespak in 2016-2017, which was built on the learnings from the floods of 2010,” says Ahsan Iqbal. Valued at PKR 140 billion, this project was designed to develop resilience against riverine floods. Even though the project was approved by the Council of Common Interest in 2017, due to the change in the government in 2018, the project stood at a standstill for the past five years.

“There was no funding nor work done on this project. If this project was implemented, most likely, it would have reduced the flood damage,” explains Ahsan Iqbal.

At the same time, the country has developed more robust capacities to manage such large-scale disasters in the past ten years. The national disaster management and advance warning systems have proven their invaluable role by sounding early warning, which has enabled local governments to forewarn the communities.

This has enabled communities to move from the affected areas or take preparatory measures before the worst of the floods came. As a result, loss of life was lower than in 2010 (1,636 lives this year vs. 2,000 lives in 2010), even though this year’s floods were much larger in scale.

Ever since the floods hit the country, the government, along with the armed forces, civil society and the international community, have been working to provide rescue and relief to the affected communities. To employ a whole-of-country approach, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has established a national flood coordination system hosted by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). All federal agencies, armed forces and provincial governments have their representatives in this system and meet on a daily basis to receive status updates and to coordinate work.

As the floods begin to recede, recovery and reconstruction efforts are being launched. “I’d like to compliment the Pakistani society and the humanitarian organizations who have extended helping hand to the displaced people. The government could not have taken care of all the affected communities without their support,” says Ahsan Iqbal.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the road to recovery will be long and hard. Both the domestic and international recourses have been stretched to their limits by a long series of calamities, and despite the enormous amount of goodwill, the amount of funding required for the reconstruction of the affected areas may not be available.

The next phase is rehabilitation and reconstruction. People are returning to the areas where water has receded, and they will need help to restore their homes and livelihoods. Federal and provincial government, as well as the armed forces are currently conducting a joint assessment in the damaged areas, to evaluate the losses of livestock and crops and the extent of damage to housing. On the basis of this survey, the government will launch a compensation program, to make the affected areas self-sufficient again.

“Let’s all put our effort,” says Ahsan Iqbal. “If we all work for Pakistan, it will rebound very soon and will again be on the path to recovery.”

(The author is a Communication Specialist with Ministry of Planning Development and Special Initiatives)