Authorities ignore structural causes of floods
By: Mahvish Ahmad
RAJANPUR: Abdul Sattar is squatting in front of a flood-swept field of cotton, a 20-minute walk from the entrance to his basti, Miranpur.
Almost three months ago, Sattar woke up to find water rushing into his katcha home. Along with 25,000 people in Punjab, and over 400,000 people all over the country, his home now falls into the category defined as ‘partially or fully damaged’, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
His land was affected too — as part of almost 500,000 acres in Punjab, and one million acres across the country. “They tell me my home and my lands were flooded because of water from the mountains of the Suleiman Range,” says Sattar. “But water has flown down from those heights for centuries. Floods were rare when we were younger.”
He raises his hand and points towards a canal that runs right next to his village. “It’s because of that. The Kacchi Canal. Its barriers broke and flash floods hit our village,” says Sattar. Started in 2006, the Kacchi Canal was part of a portfolio of mega-projects for Balochistan started by the Musharraf government.
Still incomplete six years on, the canal is scheduled to run 500km from Taunsa Barrage in district Muzaffargarh to the remote and barren areas of eastern Balochistan. And though the authorities plan to build an additional 1500km of mini-canals to carry the water from the main body to the surrounding agricultural land, none of it will benefit Sattar — or Punjab.
“There is no seraab (irrigation). Just selaab (floods),” says Sattar.
Man made troubles?
The multi-billion-rupee Kacchi Canal is one of several irrigation structures built between the Indus River and the Suleiman Range. But flood affectees, local activists and experts say they block the natural drainage paths between the mountains and the Indus River.
“Historically, local residents built temporary embankments to capture rainwater flowing from the Koh-i-Suleiman. When they had enough water, they would break the embankment, and let the water continue downstream to other farmers, until it reached the Indus River,” says Fazle Rab Lund, a local activist and president of the PARAH Development Foundation in Dera Ghazi Khan’s Taunsa Sharif.
“Now that same water runs into multi-billion constructions,” says Lund, explaining that the water’s high silt content — sand and clay carried by the water — piles up next to embankments, raising the ground level, which means that the barriers can hold back less water.
As a result, when the rainwater flows down with greater intensity, “Embankments burst and flash floods take place,” says Lund.
Mir Changez Khan Jamali, member of the National Assembly for Naseerabad and Jaffarabad (NA-266) and federal minister for science and technology, says the Pat Feeder Canal and the Right Bank Outfall Drainage (RBOD) similarly blocked hill torrents.
“Climate change and excess rain played a role. But we also need to work on infrastructural challenges,” says Jamali. The structures also divert the water towards more unnatural paths — many times to lower-lying and more flood-prone areas inhabited by the poor. “This year’s flash floods took place along the Suleiman Range. In Punjab the Kacchi Canal and the Dera Ghazi Khan Canal were to blame. And in Sindh the Pat Feeder Canal obstructed their passage,” explains Lund.
Existing “super passageways” — drainage channels that are meant to help siphon off excess water — were also too narrow, and too few in number. Mir Dost Mohammad Mazari, the member of the National Assembly from NA-175, Rajanpur-II, agrees. “We need to shift the focus away from relief, which is usually very politicised, towards causes. Insufficient drainage paths for hill torrents means the floods can recur. There is a hill torrents department, but it doesn’t function. Why is that?” When asked about the benefits of the structures, Lund argues that Pakistan’s cotton industry, not local residents, is the major beneficiary. Cotton needs more water than food crops.
A cotton picker from Rajanpur agrees. “I don’t remember canals or floods when I was young. But we had enough water to grow food. Now we get 250 rupees per maund for the cotton we pick,” she says. Cotton wins the day, though — despite a lower price than food crops, it has a higher yield per acre.
More than climate change?
Tragically, the officials in charge refuse to see the problems and want to continue building more infrastructure projects that will add to the people’s woes.
Dera Ghazi Khan’s chief engineer, Muhammad Shafique, stands in front of a large map that depicts the Suleiman Range’s 13 hill torrents in the west, a complex irrigation network in the middle, and the Indus River to the east.
“Excess rain and insufficient drainage passageways flooded these areas,” says Shafique. “But that is not a reason to stop canal expansion. We must continue to move forward.” According to Shafique, the solution is to strengthen the embankments along the river, and continue constructing irrigation networks throughout the province — though he admits funding is difficult to come by.
A cursory look at the NDMA’s 2012 Monsoon Contingency Plan, activities reported by the Federal Flood Commission, or the Irrigation Department’s ongoing projects in the region, suggest a similar approach at the provincial and national levels — where monitoring next year’s rains is seen as the primary way to stop flooding and where the solution to infrastructural problems is a strengthening of canal embankments.
According to Mushtaq Gaadi, a lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University and a water expert, both Shafique and other irrigation engineers do not admit to fundamental design failures.
Cross-drainage structures, meant to siphon off floodwater from hill torrents, are constructed to pass about 100,000 cusecs (one cubic foot per second of water). “That is less than the total floodwater carried by just one single hill torrent during a monsoon season with excessive rains. Between 1975 and 1990, the Dera Ghazi Khan canal was breached 800 times,” says Gaadi.
“We need a paradigm shift, with a more nuanced understanding of our regional drainage systems and water resources.”
Sattar is sceptical that any substantial changes will take place. “Canals benefit some people. But not all of us. It makes me think no one cares,” he says.