Natural solutions to prevent disasters stressed
KARACHI: Construction of dams, encroachments on river bed, deforestation and other issues contributing to the disastrous floods in Sindh were brought up by community, NGOs and government representatives at a seminar here on Wednesday.
The seminar, a roundtable consultation, on ‘Two years since floods 2010: between moving on and moving away!’ held by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) was followed by the launch of Urdu and English editions of a study on Disasters in South Asia — A Regional Perspective by Naseer Memon.
Speaking on the occasion, Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum chairman Mohammad Ali Shah said that the government needed to take responsibility of saving the people from disasters by having disaster management plans.
“The best way of doing this is preventing disasters. But instead of prevention the government is causing more disasters by building dams.
Dams confine the natural flow of rivers. They ruin plantation around rivers and the communities that live around the plantation. Then the dried-up river bank is encroached upon by the people. And when it rains, the river flows with more intensity destroying anything and everything that comes in its way,” he said.
“The rivers have to be freed from dams. I do not demand the dismantling of dams, but we have to move towards the environmental flow of rivers, which will bring about a positive change to the landscape as well. The river banks right now have no plantation to stop the floodwater from overflowing,” he said, while adding that land grabbers allegedly backed by the government were even destroying the plantation around the coastal belt.
“The mangrove forests have so many benefits like absorbing carbon dioxide, promoting marine life such as shrimps and killing the force of storms, cyclones and tsunami but they are all being cut down by land grabbers while the government sits back and allows this to happen.
There were re-plantation schemes in the past and more are being planned for the future as well, but what is the use of re-plantation when you cannot stop trees from being cut down. Each tree in the mangrove forest takes 20 to 25 years to grow. There were some 450,000 saplings planted at Keti Bandar some years ago but not even 50,000 of those have survived. So it is better to conserve than think about planting new trees later,” said the PFF chairman.
The author of the study launched in the seminar, Naseer Memon, stressed the need to seeing natural disasters in a South Asian perspective.
“We need to look at the point of origin of floods as there is a river network connecting Pakistan with India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The Tibetan Plateau is part of China so include it as well. Data shows that world weather is changing, the glaciers are melting more quickly and there is an increase in the number of cyclones and tsunamis the world over. Pakistan particularly Karachi is one of the most vulnerable places when talking of natural disasters,” he said.
“Disasters are not all natural, but a political issue as well due to the government polices and incompetence in disaster management,” he said while agreeing with the PFF chairman that dams were a big aspect in flooding.
“The dry land on either side of the river is soon encroached on by the people, who will be swept away by the floodwater. If they weren’t there, the river would flow as it was meant to by nature as a flood in a river is a natural phenomenon. Deforestation is a very serious problem and we are paying the price for it,” he said.
“This didn’t happen earlier when the flood in rivers were bigger than what they are now so there is no engineering solution to this. We will just have to go back to natural solutions to prevent such disasters,” the author pointed out.
About the destruction of mangroves, he said that the scale of damage during cyclones and tsunamis was considerably less wherever there were mangrove forests in South Asia. Sindh Relief Minister Haleem Adil Sheikh agreed with the speakers that preventing and managing natural disasters such as floods was the government’s responsibility like it was of the people’s too.
“When the river banks were encroached, the community didn’t raise its voice against it. And the government, to show its work for the poor, quickly constructed roads, etc, there without thinking of any drainage to ease or reduce the impact of floods. So we are all equally guilty,” he said.
“We cannot blame each other; we have to form a coalition of some kind. Earlier we were only concentrating on relief, but now our department is also looking into preventive measures. So I urge the community and NGOs to bring us your proposals and we can sign MoUs to monitor relief work as well as think of preventive measures to save lives together,” he said.
Adviser to the Sindh Chief Minister Sharmila Farooqi said that the government relied on department experts’ opinions and estimation ahead of floods, which were not very accurate most often.
“During the emergency briefing session of the Sindh cabinet ahead of the 2010 flood, we were told that the floodwater would not be more than 900,000 cusecs, which can flow easily, but it turned out to be 1,100,000 cusecs,” she said.
“Land encroachment is a big issue. And the people when given flood warnings are reluctant to move from land as they are afraid that it will be occupied by other people. But it is very difficult for an elected government to forcibly remove the people. And then when these people are displaced and moved to school and college buildings the education of students is also disturbed as the people stay there for months,” she said, adding that “so there are more problems emerging from one problem”.
Speaking about the government’s relief operation, she said that the army that came to rescue the people in boats was paid for their services by the government taking a big chunk out of its revenue reserved for other purposes.
Senior economist Dr Kaiser Bengali said that the floods were aggravated through the bad policies of the government.
“Floods in river should be yours and the environment’s friend but it has turned into an enemy due to wrong policies of the government.
When you build dams, you are also raising the river bed level due to the gathering of silt. Then the encroachment and the houses and roads that come up with it are like blockades for the floodwater,” he said.
“There has been talk of diverting the floodwater to barren land or desert in Sindh but this was possible earlier before the gas fields and fertilizer factories that are now located there. Still we can build a proper channel to drain out the water in an organized fashion, a suggestion that is with the government at present.
“Also the people living on the bank of the river could be asked not build their homes in groups of 10 or 15 but 100 or 200 so that the government can give them a proper drainage system at one or two spots with their houses built on plinths with three or four feet foundations and proper walkways, etc, to allow the water to pass from underneath them like is done in Bangladesh,” he said. About relief and disaster management, he said that the government needed to get more organised with proper equipment such as speed boats, Chinook helicopters, tents, etc. “All these plans and schemes have been suggested to the government and NGOs and advocacy groups can push them into doing something about this,” he concluded.