Recently, several events of urban flooding, flash flooding, glacial lake overflows and torrential rains have wreaked havoc around the world, affecting human lives, infrastructure, livestock, roads and bridges. In West Virginia, US, 44 people are missing after flooding washed away homes. 14 people have been rescued in Tennessee, USA. Around 50,000 people have been affected in Australia due to the floods. In Bangladesh, around 4.3 million people have been affected and 90,000 displaced. In India, around 5 million people have been affected and more than 200,000 have been displaced due to heavy monsoon rains. In China, traffic was disrupted in several cities due to heavy rain.
Pakistan is also among the countries affected by monsoon rains. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, 165 deaths were reported in different parts of Pakistan, 171 people were injured, five bridges and five stores were destroyed, 781 houses were partially damaged and 350 completely destroyed. 1,319 head of cattle were lost during the recent monsoon period.
The main cause of floods is increased global warming. It is linked to increased heat waves as warmer air carries more water, leading to more intense precipitation. Climate change causes forest fires and during heavy rains, debris flows and burned forests create exacerbating impacts. However, there are several other reasons that lead to devastating effects.
Pakistan experienced 57,445 fires between July 2019 and July 2022, according to Global forest watch. In 2021, an estimated area of 38 kha (thousands of hectares) has been burned. Most wildfires were reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (2.04 kha) followed by Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh.
The main reason after climate change is poor urban planning, leaving little or no room for water to flow during heavy rainfall. Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi are the worst examples. Cities are expanding without proper planning, leading to more urban flooding.
Deforestation is another factor exacerbating the impact of floods. Trees can retain water. This slows down the speed of the water so there is less damage. According Global forest watch, from 2001 to 2021, Pakistan lost 9.75 kha (thousand hectares) of tree cover, equivalent to a 1.0% decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 3.56 Mt of emissions of CO. The main loss of coverage during these years occurred in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, that’s to say, 8.76 kha against an average of 1.22 kha. This is the province that reported planting 1 billion trees.
Bad drains also play a significant role in worsening flooding. There is no waste management system in place in many cities. The pipes intended to evacuate the excess water are thus obstructed by plastic and other household waste. In Karachi’s original plan, there were six drains for the disposal of excess water. However, most drains were either clogged with trash or covered with concrete. The result is that now water is entering people’s homes and cars are seen floating on the roads.
The main reason, after climate change, is poor urban planning, leaving little or no room for water to flow during heavy rainfall. Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi are the worst examples. Cities are expanding without proper planning leading to increased urban flooding.
According to Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, an unprecedented 126 millimeters (4.96 inches) of rain had fallen in three hours in Karachi. The water is too abundant to be absorbed by the ground or transported by the drains. According to various news sources, around 30 people died in Karachi alone in July.
The situation in Nullah Leh in Rawalpindi is no different. Lahore also has its share of the problem. Urban planners apparently still do not take climate change into account.
Siltation and sedimentation of reservoirs reduce their ability to hold water. Total storage in large tanks that’s to say Tarbela, Mangla and Chashma were 13.516 million acre feet (MAF) according to Federal Flood Commission estimates. This has been reduced to 9.875 MAF.
Floods also damage crops, infrastructure, the health sector, and human and animal lives. An important but least talked about area is the mental health of families who repeatedly experience flooding. Losing loved ones, homes, livestock and small businesses leaves many in trauma and depression. It is necessary to advise these people so that they can contribute to society in the future.
Forest services must control forest fires. They must be trained and equipped with the latest technology so that prompt action can prevent the loss of valuable forest cover. Human-caused wildfires must be dealt with to the full force of the law. A report on how the Margallah Tiktoker fire was handled is still awaited.
While the previous government takes credit for planting a large number of trees, it appears that trees have also been cut down at an alarming rate. The mafia involved in deforestation must be stopped. Heavy fines should be imposed on the culprits. It is also necessary to expand wetlands and natural depressions to recharge groundwater in the event of excessive rainfall.
Appropriate waste management systems are needed. Pakistan does not yet have a national policy on this subject. We need to learn from countries like Germany, the United States and China and start treating solid waste instead of putting it down the drain. Drains must be cleaned and their capacity restored. So far only one drain in Karachi has been cleared. The rest remains blocked.
The carrying capacity of rivers must increase. People living on the banks of sewers and rivers should move away. New housing programs should avoid the mistakes of the past. More opportunities in remote areas should be provided so that rural-urban migration can be managed.
The National Disaster Management Authority’s latest contingency plan is quite comprehensive. It must be implemented carefully.
The author is an environmental expert based in the United States. She is also a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad. She tweets at @S_Maryam8.