Keeping in mind the vulnerability of Pakistan to climate change and its devastating impacts in the form of floods, Iqbal Institute of Policy Studies (IIPS) hosted a live-webinar on the challenges and opportunities of floodplain management in Pakistan. The discussion among eminent personalities focused on identifying significant challenges in flood management and highlighting policy options to avert future flood threat.
- What are the challenges and opportunities for floodplain management in Pakistan?
- What is the importance of ecological solutions and nature-based interventions?
- What is the impact of early warning systems on the frequency and intensity of floods in Pakistan?
- What measures can be taken to improve floodplain management in Pakistan?
For years, devastating floods have resulted in the loss of human life and economic loss of billions of dollars. The mismanagement of water resources and wastage of water has put the country in a dangerous position where it is estimated that by the year 2025, Pakistan will run dry, wreaking havoc on the socio-economic fabric of the country. It is, therefore, imperative to suggest measures for improving floodplain management in Pakistan.
Challenges and Opportunities for Floodplain Management in Pakistan
According to Rear Admiral Saleem Akhtar (Retd), Member IIPS advisory Board, Pakistan faces multiple problems with water shortages. With negligible recharge, the groundwater level has gone down, and dry wetlands have changed the country’s microclimate. Climate Change has resulted in extreme events like excessive floods, followed by long periods of severe droughts. Pakistan becomes a wetland country for short periods and dryland for more extended periods as was the case in the super floods of three consecutive years after 2010. Converting a disaster into an opportunity is the underlying theme of floodplain management. This new concept has been successfully executed on ground in many countries, including China. Floodplain management includes restoring natural wetlands, allowing floods to spread slowly in floodplains so that groundwater is recharged, flush pollutants and provide habitat to migratory and resident wild birds. It has the potential to make countries water-secure and improve their flood management capacity at a fraction of the costs involved in flood relief operations. Therefore, it is imperative to learn from other countries and suggest ways to use floods wisely through floodplain management, which is more of an ecological solution than hardcore engineering solutions such as building dams and heavy embankments.
Dr Faiz Muhammad Kakar, Former Minister of Environment, Balochistan, shed light on the challenges and opportunities of floodwater conservation, particularly with reference to Balochistan. With regards to options, he highlighted three critical aspects. Firstly, the province’s territorial area is about 40 percent of the country’s total area. Secondly, 70 percent of the total coastal area of Pakistan falls within Balochistan territory. Lastly, the province has 18 river basins and receive 12 million acre-feet flood flow annually. In terms of geographical area, the province is divided into the Indus river basin area and non-Indus area. The Indus river basin area receives about 4 million acre-feet worth floodwater each year, but there is no water utilisation. Furthermore, in the context of water potential, the province only utilises 3 to 4 million acre-feet of floodwater out of the 12 million acre-feet received annually. It is vital to maintain certain levels of environmental flows to prevent reverse flows. However, there is a need to introduce measures to stop the wastage of water flows. Many criticise Balochistan for opposing the formation of dams in the country. However, small dams hinder water flows and stop water recharge into streams and disrupt the karez system, which serves as the province’s lifeline. There is a need to initiate an impact study of small dams in Balochistan before undertaking any projects.
Importance of Ecological Solutions and Nature-Based Interventions
According to Mr Ahmed Kamal, Chairman Federal Flood Commission, till 1976, the subject of flood management was purely headed by provinces. However, after the destructive floods of 1976, the federal government formulated the Federal Flood Commission and made flood management a national subject. The 2010 floods were colossal and brought into focus many inefficiencies existing in flood management, whether related to governance, technical capacity, or the ground’s physiological conditions. Studies show that it is most efficient to keep 40 percent surface water stored in reservoirs, but presently in Pakistan, we hold less than 10 percent water. This shows that we will not make proper use of water received in the monsoon season without effective floodplain management. While putting stress on structural interventions, the national flood protection plan has also stressed the active management of floodwater at the local level. Since there is no main river flowing through the province of Balochistan, it is vital to have effective water dispersion and diversion structures installed along with storage structures to offset any periods of droughts in the province. Issues related to coastal flood management and urban management are equally important. There is a lack of urban planning in Pakistan due to which poor drainage systems are installed in cities leading to catastrophic floods. Urban plans are formulated without any concern for hydrological aspects. Furthermore, currently, there are no projects with regards to coastal flood management in Pakistan.
According to Mr Hammad Naqi Khan, CEO WWF Pakistan, Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. In the past years, the effects of climate change in the form of flash floods, uneven rainfall patterns, heat waves and prolonged droughts have been quite devastating. There is a need for an integrated approach whereby non-engineering interventions supplemented with engineering solutions are implemented to manage floods. Furthermore, improved coordination among various government and non-government departments is essential for apt flood management. One of the best ways to manage floods and floodplains is by reviving wetlands. Wetlands are the natural depressions which absorb water and raise groundwater table. The project titled, “Recharge Pakistan”, was started after a consultative process involving all stakeholders such as Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Climate Change, WAPDA and provincial irrigation departments. The project aims to link wetlands and implement soft engineering solutions such as watershed management, plantation and reforestation, soil bioengineering, and terracing to revive wetlands in Pakistan. This project has the potential to become a game-changer for Pakistan by providing a solution to managing our floods. It will prove as a good example of eco-based adaptation and nature-based solution to floodplain management.
Impact of Early Warning Systems on the Frequency and Intensity of Floods in Pakistan
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, Former CEO LEAD, Pakistan, talked about the effectiveness of early warning systems and their importance in averting natural catastrophes. He pointed out that in government books and papers, the definition of early warning systems is given as a system installed in place for obtaining timely and accurate information to prevent disasters. However, the missing term in the definition is “actionable”. Actionable data is pertinent to an efficient early warning system. Furthermore, he shared the success story of an effective early warning system installed in lake Nala Lai in Rawalpindi. At lake Nala Lai, six rain and water measurement gauges have been installed that take water measurements every two minutes and send data to a control room which assesses the data. The assessed data is communicated to 14 communication centres that are instructed to take immediate action in case of an emergency. The total cost of this installation was only US$ 5 million. This system can be installed in the other 24 identified potential locations, but little progress has been made to carry out this plan.
Pakistan can learn how to competently control pollution from China. The Chinese government has formed a cluster of two cities, Beijing and Tinyint, and established zones to monitor air quality. The zones monitor air pollution levels and present the information in an easy and lucid way for the common people to understand. They employ the use of colour coding to identify air pollution levels. There are three main reasons for the success of this program, namely, the quality of the plan was clear, the information was presented in an easy to understand the way, they plan employed a regional approach.
Pakistan can take certain measures to combat the threat of climate change and manage floods successfully. Firstly, it is important to engage local communities in carrying out self-assessment of their areas. Afterwards, the government can formulate SOPs for different areas with regards to flood management. Secondly, as some of our water bodies come from India, so it is imperative to coordinate with the Indian government with regards to protecting Pakistan from downstream flooding. This will also help improve our early warning system regime. Furthermore, we need to improve our technical capacity. There are presently seven radars for weather forecasting out of which two work predictably. Further 13 more radars are needed to monitor air quality, precipitation, and wind direction. Pakistan is slipping on its targets set forth in the International strategy for disaster reduction (ISDR). There is an urgent need to work on actionable information. Transparency must be introduced in real estate transactions to ensure that no unplanned communities come up in the low-lying areas of Pakistan.
Measures to Improve Floodplain Management in Pakistan
According to Dr Syed Mahmood Nasir, Former IG Forest, Ministry of Environment, Pakistan should learn from the Dutch, who are considered the best in water management. Chinese also followed in their footsteps and started various projects to revive wetlands. A major issue in floodplain management is the lack of coordination among various departments in Pakistan. The government must establish wetland management authorities in all provinces in the same way India and China have established in their provinces to improve floodplain management coordination. The biggest challenge we have is that our drinking water is getting polluted by industrial runoffs. However, no measures have been taken to prevent this issue. Industrial waste is not treated properly due to which wildlife and marine life suffer the most. The issue of the environment goes beyond national interest, it encompasses all humankind, so it is essential to formulate a holistic and integrated approach for averting the threat of climate change. We must take on regional board partners and international players in carrying out floodplain management programs.
- Wetlands are essential for effective flood management as they provide natural depressions to hold floodwater.
- Wetland management authorities must be set up in provinces to improve coordination among various department for better floodplain management.
- The “Recharge Pakistan” project aims to implement soft engineering solutions such as watershed management, plantation and reforestation, soil bioengineering, and terracing to revive wetlands in Pakistan.
- There is a need to maintain and regulate the consistent flow of water in the Indus delta to prevent an adverse impact on the ecosystem.
- Projects for coastal flood management need to be initiated as the threat of tsunamis and cyclones has become more imminent with climate change.
- We need to improve our technical capacity by installing radars to monitor air quality, precipitation, and wind direction.
- Actionable information is pertinent to an efficient early warning system. Hence, there is an urgent need to work on actionable data.
- An integrated approach encompassing early warning systems, excessive investments in infrastructure and urban planning is needed to prevent urban flooding.
- The government must act against industries that are polluting water resources as they are destroying clean drinking water and deteriorating quality of groundwater.
- The government must engage the local communities in carrying out self-assessment of their areas for enhanced flood management.
- Indian government must be taken on board with regards to protecting Pakistan from downstream flooding.
- Effective water dispersion and diversion structures need to be installed in Balochistan to offset climate change calamities.
- We must initiate an impact study of small dams in Balochistan before any such projects are undertaken.
Iqbal Institute of Policy Studies. (2020). Water Scarcity in Pakistan & Our Policy Measures. Islamabad: IIPS. Available at https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=502262337219615