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A question of justice : Part – II

Whenever a calamity hits Pakistan, we listen to the same old arguments like ‘no government on earth could have mitigated the impact of the 2022 floods’ or ‘this is a natural calamity and some sort of Divine punishment’. This is an argument which have been recycling after every major disaster since the 2005 earthquake.

While there is no doubt that the magnitude and impact of the recent floods were unprecedented, it is also an undeniable fact that no government on earth would have left vast areas of land and a large number of people and area unattended for them to drown.

Things such as disaster preparedness, effective coordination, an efficient district-level functional governance system and prompt actions could have minimized the suffering of flood victims.

Twelve years have passed since the 2010 floods, which shows that the state had enough time to prepare for such catastrophes. The dismal response from public authorities to the flood crisis highlights deep structural challenges in the system. It also shows that the ruling elite is insensitive to the problems of the people, and that at the time of a crisis, emotionally charged people engage in sporadic relief actions to support their fellow citizens who keep waiting for a well-organized and coordinated institutional response.

Interestingly, there were no political consequences after the 2010 floods, and the ruling elites anticipate no such surprises now as well. Political parties in power know that there will be no mass movement or protest and outrage on social media will die down as soon as rainwater and flood water start receding and the affected people move back to pick the pieces of their shattered belongings. Hence, there is no incentive for the ruling elite – except their moral responsibility – to care for the people. Showing empathy towards people is a rare quality and is mostly absent in Pakistan’s body politics.

The country’s unpreparedness despite having experienced major disasters like the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods is condemnable. It should be asked why the relevant institutions receive inadequate resources and why there was complete inaction on the issue of disaster preparedness and management. Factors like informal settlements along the waterways, choked drains, occupied natural waterways, artificial dykes in the rivers, indecisiveness and utter incompetence in coordinating and responding when the disaster of this scale hits have finally led the country to the current situation.

The recent floods have exposed the cracks in the system more vividly. The state of decision-making when the crisis hit demonstrated complete unpreparedness; there was complete chaos across the country. Institutional decay, technical incapability and political indecisiveness led to climate conflicts; for example when cuts were made to divert flood water to the River Indus, Sindh authorities did not care for how this would affect people living in low-lying areas.

Such decisions should not have been turned into a spectacle where people from one district fight with those from another district of Sindh. This diverted the attention and energies of people who instead of making decision-makers accountable for their actions ended up blaming each other for this decision, without knowing the facts.

Will this crisis be forgotten just like previous such incidents or is there a way forward? There are enough solutions available, but one thing that each of them highlights is that we need strong decision-making power and political will to implement suggested measures and avoid such massive-level disasters in the future. The Sindh government may consider the following suggestions to prepare for such events in the future:

Develop flood canals: To divert additional flood water, the Sindh government must explore the option of developing flood canals and extending the existing Reni canal to Thar desert. It should identify natural depressions or areas where more water could be stored to recharge the groundwater in the desert. This will not only help in reducing water pressure but also address water deficiency in Thar.

Clear all natural waterways: After the 2010 floods, the Sindh government initiated several expert studies, enacted the law and was determined to remove all barriers in the natural waterways. However, this could not be done due to political reasons. It could be criminal negligence if the provincial government still remains unable to clear all the natural waterways.

Remove all artificial barriers in the Indus: This time the River Indus was not flooded, but to avoid flooding in the future, artificial dykes developed by powerful people in the riverine belt must be immediately removed as these obstacles are prone to causing future flooding.

Expanding storage capacity of Hammal and Manchar lakes: Much of the flooding in the right bank of the Indus in Sindh is caused by hill torrents and flood water emerging from the mountain ranges connected with Balochistan. The two natural lakes absorb additional water, but they have limited capacity; these lakes should be considered small dams. Their storage capacity should be increased, and they should have spillways connected with the Indus to dispose of water once their capacity is fully achieved.

Strengthening and improving surface drains: There is a lot of pressure on the existing drainage network, mainly on the left bank outfall drain (LBOD) system. The main spinal drain under this system was designed to carry little over 4,000 cusecs, but during flooding, it carries over 10,000 cusecs, which is still insufficient to timely dispose flood water from Nawabshah, Mirpurkhas and Sanghar districts.

There is also a technical problem with the disposal of spinal drain in Badin. When the drain interfaces with high tides, the disposal of water to the sea is blocked for hours and the water begins to overflow, entering Badin district. The current floods show that we need to strengthen and expand the capacity of spinal drain, and a proper disposal system in its two arteries may be included to delink Kadhan Pateji Outfall Drain from the Tidal Link, removing the existing weir of Dhoro Puran Outfall Drain to dispose more water into Lake Shakoor during floods.

Restoring coastal lakes with increased capacity and exploring other depressions for excessive water storage: There are several natural lakes in Badin district which have been badly damaged by the LBOD system; the authorities need to restore these lakes to increase the water storage capacity. This can also support the livelihood of the local fishing community. It is important to explore natural depressions in the tail end area of the spinal drain, Dhoro Puran, in both Mirpurkhas and Badin districts for additional storage.

Connecting Dhoro Puran/spinal drain with the Rann of Kutch and Thar desert: For speedy disposal of excessive rainwater, other option could be to explore and develop technical feasibility of diverting excessive flood water into the Rann of Kutch through spinal drain and excavating the channel in Thar desert to connect with the existing Dhoro Puran to divert flood water to Thar, when its quality is acceptable.

Disaster resilient infrastructure: To avoid infrastructural damage in the future, all future designs should be flood-proof. All infrastructure should be raised from the current ground levels, and all highways and other major infrastructure must have adequate water escapes.

Investing in and strengthening disaster institutions: The past negligence of not investing in the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) and district disaster management plans have come at a great cost. Future inaction may cost even more, therefore investing in institutions which have the capacity to handle these types of disasters with minimum losses should be the government’s top priority. It should start implementing the flood management plans that have been already proposed in several studies through coordinated institutional arrangement.

Combining scattered hamlets into small cities: The provincial government can use this opportunity to develop small- or medium-size cities at high grounds to settle the affected population. This can bring the scattered, far-flung hamlets at one place, and it will be easy to provide them the required public services. However, these people must be provided with the right skills so that they can earn decent income.

Mustafa Talpur, "A question of justice : Part – II," The News. 2022-09-17.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political reasons , Political will , Accountability , Floods , Pakistan , PDMA , LBOD