With one out of 7 persons affected by floods, Pakistan declares emergency

pakistan floods

30 to 33 million persons are reported to be seriously affected by floods in Pakistan, a country with a population of 220 million. Due to this a national emergency has been declared in Pakistan.

The previous worst floods in Pakistan were recorded in 2010 when nearly 20 million people were affected, causing damages estimated at $10 billion. This was followed by a very serious flood situation next year in Sindh. What is more, there was some serious flood event or the other for the next five years.

This year Sindh and Balochistan are reported to be the worst affected, although serious harm has been reported from elsewhere too. From mid-June to the last week of August, nearly 1000 persons have perished in floods and a higher number have faced injuries. Nearly 700,000 livestock have been killed too, which is sad in itself but also brings the possibility of spread of disease.   3000 km. of roads have been damaged and 145 bridges have collapsed.

As over 30 million are reported to be without shelter, as reported, having moved away from their flooded homes, this means that shelter and food for one-seventh of the population has to be arranged, a big challenge in the best of times but even more formidable in these times of many-sided problems. Nearly 700,000 houses are reported to be already destroyed or badly damaged, and this number is likely to increase as more complete information comes in. Assuming six members per house, this means that over 5 million people, or over 2 per cent of the population, will face longer term prospects without shelter ( over and above the normal number of homeless people), for weeks or months after the floods have passed.

Clearly two important steps are needed. Firstly, the government must make the best effort possible to step-up relief and rehabilitation, with full support from the army and the political opposition. Pakistan has faced very bitter political feuds in recent times, but this is a time for unity to help people.  Secondly, international aid must be generous. Due to a number of factors, international sympathy for Pakistan has declined in recent years. This is understandable, but this factor should not be allowed to stand in the way of humanitarian assistance for people affected so badly by floods.

On its part the Pakistani authorities must prepare well to utilize aid properly. At the time of the 2010 floods there were some complaints of minorities including Hindus and Sikhs facing some discrimination in the relief effort, and care should be taken to avoid any such discrimination this time.

Of course this is the time to concentrate on relief and rehabilitation, but afterwards there is need for giving much more attention to reducing those causes which are aggravating floods time and again in Pakistan. At the time of its independence and formation, Pakistan had about 33 per cent of its area under forest cover which has now reduced to about 4 per cent only. This includes forests in hilly catchment areas and near rivers. While this directly contributes to floods, this also silts up reservoirs and rivers at a fast pace. The capacity of highly silted dam reservoirs to absorb floods flows is greatly diminished, and the release of their water unleashes very destructive floods.istan

The notorious timber mafias are responsible to a significant extent for high rates of deforestation. Apart from denuding forests at a fast pace these mafias also use rivers to transport their boulders. In flood times these floating boulders also smash houses and bridges. Carelessly scattered construction debris in hilly areas carried away by floods also increase destruction.

Flood plains have been badly encroached upon. Poor urban communities denied proper housing spaces are forced to settle in dangerous water carrying channels. Powerful builders encroach on land which is meant for housing, thereby impeding free water flow and diverting floods to others. To cut costs and push for hurried completion, many development projects do not provide proper drainage.

Embankments come under increasing risk from rising flood levels, but their maintenance dies not provide for this, leading to breaches which can be very destructive. In addition there have been reports that the more powerful landowners sometimes save their crops by deliberately breaching embankments and exposing much higher numbers of people to greater risk.

All this would be problematic even in normal times, but the harm is all the more aggravated in times of climate change. Extremely high rain events have been reported more frequently in these times of climate change, including this year, and the monsoon cycles have been more extended. As such adverse weather is likely to be more reported in times of climate change, this is all the more reason why it is more urgent to adopt all the precautionary and preventive steps that are needed for better protection from floods.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.

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