Oct 4, 2010

Back in bad shape

The required infrastructure should be rapidly developed to minimise impact of floods

By Shakeel Ahmed Ramey

The devastation caused by recent floods has reached alarming proportions. The scale and intensity of damage has stunned the world community and it will take time before the actual loss and sufferings of the people can be gauged.

Human suffering will only be exacerbated by severe blows dealt to the agricultural sector, which will longer term impacts. Standing crops have been washed away and millions of livestock lost. Agriculture is the prime source of income in major parts of the flood-affected areas and the losses incurred have had a direct effect on the livelihoods of the farmers.

Many of the farmers have limited resources and restricted options of livelihood. The already rampant poverty in these areas will further increase as farmers scramble to reconstruct their livelihoods. The losses sustained by the agricultural sector will also worsen food insecurity situation across the country with more acute effects in those flood affected.

Much of the forest cover has also been destroyed, especially in the northern areas. In Pakistan, the forest cover was already below the international level and the floods have only aggravated the situation. Effects on the agricultural sector and forestry will continue to be felt in the coming days.

Due to severe damage incurred by transportation and communication, many areas have lost links to the main networks, making it almost impossible to conduct rescue and relief work. While national and international relief efforts are on, there is a debate raging, which is trying to decipher the dynamics that caused such a disaster. Pakistan went through a record 12 inches rain within 36 hours during this monsoon season.

The monsoon-fed Indus River, which acts as the backbone of the agricultural system, became a vessel of destruction as rain caused the river to flood the valley. Many scientists and climate change experts are of the view that global warming is the primary reason of such unprecedented floods.

While changes in global environment continue to shock and alarm populations, it has already been predicted by climate experts that abnormal rains, floods, heat waves, landslides and fires would become inevitable in the future. In fact, the Fourth Assessment report of IPCC came out with clear predication of abnormal rains, floods, and heat waves in certain areas of the world, including South Asia.

Russia went through the worst heat wave of its history, with high temperatures, lack of rain and wildfires having destroyed more than a third of cultivable area in Russia. Forests near Moscow were under heavy fire, engulfing the whole city of Moscow in smoke.

China, too, had to bear the brunt of nature as landslides, heavy rains and floods erupted in certain provinces. 1,144 people are confirmed dead in China but this masks the intensity of tragedy as there were at least 45, 000 people in Zhouqu county alone who had been evacuated. The destruction to infrastructure and livelihood sources lead to losses of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Experts have predicted that in the coming years such instances will not only become more frequent but also occur with increased intensity. This is attributed to climate change which is rapidly altering the natural environment we live in. Not only does this series of events reconfirm the validity of climate change science, dispelling any notions of the phenomenon being a mere myth but has also prompted a renewed global concern for the future of the planet.

Exposed to multiple threats, Pakistan ranks very high on the vulnerability table to climate change and is included in World Bank's list of 12 most vulnerable countries to climate change. Higher temperatures, heavy rains, sea level rise, droughts, loss of biodiversity and productivity losses in agricultural sector are anticipated in Pakistan due to climate change.

Pakistan has been bearing the impact of climate change without being aware of it; long spells of drought, floods in non-flood prone areas in 2007-08, changing rainfall patterns, etc, are trends that are visible representations of change in the climate. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (2007) had clearly mentioned that in the coming years, rains will intensify in the northern region of the country.

The present floods in Pakistan are due to heavy and abnormal rains during the monsoon which caused the Indus River to overflow. However, it must be noted that changing rainfall patterns will not be the only source of floods in the coming years. The recent cyclone in the Arabian Sea; Cyclone Phet signaled warnings across the coastal areas of Pakistan as tens of thousand of people were evacuated from vulnerable areas along the Sindh and Balochistan coast.

The greater risk that confronts the coastal areas is that of sea level rise; a trend being observed all over the globe and fast gaining momentum. Karachi, in particular, is particularly vulnerable as it is 8 feet below the sea level placing it at a high risk of floods.

Functioning as the economic hub of the country, any calamity in Karachi will have strong repercussions for the whole economic fabric of the country. At the same time, the lives of its 20 million inhabitants will be at great risk. Floods due to sea level rise will also impact agricultural and productive land converting them to non-productive land, especially in areas such as Badin.

Pakistan cannot control or reverse climate change nor can it avoid natural calamities. However Pakistan can devise policies, implementation tools and infrastructure to minimise the impact of these natural disasters. Pakistan can take preventative measures to ensure that these disasters are not converted into a human tragedy in future.

Adaptation and pre-emptive planning are key strategic steps which can help to minimise the impact of climate change. First, Pakistan has to develop a comprehensive Adaptation Action Plan for the country; keeping in mind the vulnerabilities of the country to climate change, which poses multiple threats simultaneously. Second, Pakistan has to focus on reservoir development, in particular the construction of new reservoirs.

Big dams may have their social and environmental problems, but they can play a very crucial role in minimising the impact of floods due to rain. Besides flood control, these dams can also help generate cheap electricity and ensure timely availability of water for agriculture, drinking and industry. Politics should be kept aside and focus should be shifted on the construction of new dams which have become a dire need for the country. Third, the forest cover of the country which is already well below the international level should be increased.

Currently, an opposite trend is being observed as forest logging is emerging as a big issue forest sector in Pakistan. In 1992, after the flood in Pakistan, it was pointed out that an increased reduction of the forest cover had made the floods even more devastating. Forests cannot control or mitigate floods entirely but they can play a significant role in reducing severity of flood. At the same time, forest can also help to reduce soil erosion caused by heavy rains and floods which can diffuse the impact of intense flooding. Fourth, Pakistan must also rapidly develop infrastructure to avoid or minimize impacts of floods due to sea level rise.

Physical infrastructure will have to be constructed to secure Karachi and other low-lying coastal areas. Increasing the mangrove forest cover along the coastal line will also serve to act as a defense against floods from predicted sea level rise along the coasts of Sindh and Balochistan.

For the implementation of adaptation plan and physical interventions mentioned above, a huge amount of investment is required. Pakistan does not possess such resources and its ability to invest in the future is also compromised as it struggles to deal with consequences of the recent floods. However, Pakistan can secure funding to invest in these options from the international community through Clean Development Mechanisms's Adaptation Fund, REDD, etc, which are in place to assist developing countries cope with the impact of climate change. Although these resources will not be tailor made to the needs of country, however, they will serve to minimise burden of the country.

These funds will not be loans, thus will not entangle the country in another web of debts. It depends on government and state players to play their cards right and benefit from these resources. Efforts should be directed towards adaptive responses to climate change lest another tragedy falls upon the people of Pakistan.

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