Floods: a Fateful, Familiar Story

Sep 11th, 2014 | By | Category: Pakistan

Pakistan has suffered through around two dozen floods since its inception. The frequency of floods has increased lately as the country has constantly faced natural calamity in the form of riverine floods or flash floods every year for last five years. Climate change is no myth and Pakistan is amongst the top-ranked countries in the world affected by climate-related disasters. 

Pakistan was ranked on 1, 3 and 5 in 2010, 2011 and 2012‘s Global Climate Risk index, respectively. The Indus Water basin is deemed to be amongst the globe’s most climate change-vulnerable reservoir. There have been reports published before 2010 which explained that water melting from Himalayan glaciers would be higher in 2010-2025, resulting in water reserves’ depletion and ensuing shortages in subsequent years. 

The warning has been there: the region is prone to chunks of high floods followed by years of drought-like situation until and unless water storage capacity is enhanced considerably. 

Pakistan’s annual water inflows are around 150-165 million acre feet (maf) while the country has storage capacity of mere 11.55 maf. This implies a storage capacity of less than 30 days of flows while in case of India it is much higher (over 120 days). Pakistan stores around seven percent of its available water while the global average is at 40 percent. That is why the per capita water availability in Pakistan is said to be among the lowest in the world at 73 cubic meters as against 6,150 cubic meters in the United States. The result is that water’s contribution to Pakistan’s GDP is $0.34 per cubic meter, compared to global average of $8.6 per cubic meter. 

The situation suggests that there would be chronic water shortage in the country in years to come and the stress is already visible. The potential economic loss due to wastage of water is mind-blowing. Pakistan, on an average, loses 15 percent (30-35 maf) of its fresh water per annum in the sea. Experts have calculated the global average of economic gain from one maf of water at $2 billion. 

Given Pakistan’s inefficiencies, one maf of water is priced at about $1 billion. So, the economic loss every year comes at $30-35 billion (12-14% of GDP). The loss to production and exports is humongous due to inefficient water management. The losses could be magnified by incorporating the severity of power shortage in the country and had the water been properly managed, power production could have been a by-product. 

Rao Arshad Ali Khan, ex-chairman IRSA had previously told BR Research in an interview that “the total investment required for the three dams at Kalabagh, Bhasha and Akhori comes to around $25 billion, and the timeline for completion is up to eight years. The proceeds from hydro generation, which is actually a by-product of dams, can, alone, recover investment in five years. Additionally, new dams would help in irrigating currently-ignored arable lands. And in days of high rains, dams serve well in contingencies and mitigate riverine floods.” 

The 2010 super floods in Pakistan should have been reason enough for authorities to jolt and initiate effective disaster management system and expedite the process of building adequate reservoirs and dams. The loss from the calamity was huge as the human demise toll was around 2,000 while 1.2 million livestock had perished. The devastation made 1.1 million people homeless while 18 million (10% of population) was affected. 

There was a generous response from the global community as many countries, bilateral and multilateral agencies and INGOs pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation. However, upon seeing the government’s lack of interest in adapting to climate change and instilling measures to prevent disasters, only a fraction was materialized out of the pledges. That has resulted in donor fatigue as relatively lower support was seemingly offered in subsequent floods. 

The loss from series of floods could have been much less had the government installed early warning systems in every district. Alas, the authorities could not get their act together after the catastrophic loss from 2010 floods. No wonder, even the flash floods in 2012 and 2013 were enough to take the lives of 900 people. 

Keep on counting the loss in 2014. The country is facing another round of floods this year. To date, floods have taken around 200 lives in the country. The loss is primarily in Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and upper Punjab. The water levels have been rising and there are threats of floods to reach areas in Southern Punjab and Sindh. 

If there is going to be a second round of floods, the loss could be much higher than what it is today. Already, floodwaters have reached the industrial belt of Punjab, so the losses would also mount from the manufacturing sector. 

Apart from direct human loss, the well-being of many is affected by the series of floods in Pakistan. According to a survey, due to climate change, 54 percent of country’s inhabitants are worse off than before. Most of rural people are dependent upon crops and livestock for their living and floods affect these two badly. In the past five years, millions of acres of crops were destroyed, and livestock losses are no different. 

According to NDMA reports, economic loss was $10.1 billion (6.5% of GDP) while two million acres of crops were damaged in the 2010 super floods. The cumulative loss of floods in 2011-13 was $8.3 billion spanning over three years. The reports suggest that loss to date in 2014 floods is $0.5 billion (0.2% of GDP) but that number will inflate as the floods reach Southern Punjab and Sindh as it can severely damage cotton crop there. 

A recent research report by brokerage Top line Securities suggested that the magnitude of loss this year would be similar to that in the preceding two years and the damage would be less than floods of 2010 and 2011. It has revised its forecast on GDP, by incorporating the economic loss due to political chaos and floods, to 4.2 percent from earlier 4.5 percent in FY15. The loss could be much higher as second round of rains can worsen the impact of floods while the political protests continue in Islamabad. 

The National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) was approved by the PPP government in February 2013 which recommended an improved flood forecasting system across the country and increased capacity of storm drainage system in urban areas. However, in the PML-N government, it was perhaps not among Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s priorities and he slashed its budget due to fiscal constraints. 

We need to learn lessons from Bangladesh, which was historically more prone to floods and nowadays it’s nowhere in headlines on the issue. International donors responded to the Bengalis on their commitment to improving environment as lately the country got a funding of $500 million to improve the land affected by water salinity apart from tapping global green fund. 

But, there is a tendency among Pakistanis to remain in their comfort zone until the calamity hits. As a result, the country is too late and ill-prepared to respond. That needs to change.

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