Preparing for urban flooding | Political economics


LListening to the Chief Minister of Sindh at a press conference on July 14 was amazing. He said, “We were all in the street, including me, the ministers, the administrator and other officials. We were trying to resolve the situation. The day before yesterday, when there was a little break in the rain, I was on the street, risking my car… However, yesterday the whole four to five feet of water had been drained. Every part of town except for some areas of the old town was clean.

It is this assurance – “I was there on the ground” – that exposes us to such disastrous situations every year. It is good for government leaders to be at the forefront of disaster and rescue, but once a disaster has happened, there is not much left to prevent its consequences.

It was interesting to note a thirty-eight-year-old story (Monday August 13, 1984) in an English daily newspaper stating: “Well-to-do families had to go without meals in the posh society of La Défense. The whole area looked like an island, with six to eighteen inches of standing water around each house and on the access roads. The children have not been to school since last Tuesday.

With such a predictable pattern of urban flooding in Karachi, it is unacceptable that every year government officials appear in the media with flimsy excuses. At the same press conference, the Chief Minister referred to the heavy rains of 2020 which exceeded 400 millimetres. In 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2011 also, Karachi had witnessed nearly 300 millimeters of monsoon rain. In 2007 and 2010, it was around 400 millimetres.

Rain-triggered floods have killed at least 135 people in Balochistan this year; hundreds were left homeless. 21 people had died last year. There is also a constant pattern of flooding in Punjab and KP. Pakistan has experienced 20 major floods: in 1950, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1995, 2010, 2011 and also May 1 include 2016 in the list and 2020 with historic urban flooding in Karachi.

If a nation is subject to disaster with such consistency, it is indeed the responsibility of its government officials to ensure a concrete disaster prevention and mitigation mechanism that remains in place to deal with any situation.

I remember in 1992 I was in Karachi for a training program when one day almost everyone in the office was worried after lunch and wanted to leave the office to go home safely. We also left the office but the driver couldn’t pick us up because of the water in the streets. We decided to walk to the hotel but it turned out to be a bad decision. In the end, we arrived at the hotel after facing many difficulties.

In case of floods, there are always warnings. We notice them before any incident. I was in Almaty, Kazakhstan when the 2005 earthquake hit Pakistan. Almaty had witnessed a major earthquake in the 1970s. After the earthquake, our Defense Attaché in a community meeting briefed the Pakistani Diaspora on Kazakhstan’s preparedness to meet the needs of the whole city. He thanked the government of Kazakhstan for donating a state-of-the-art mobile hospital and tents with full facilities, including portable toilets, to Pakistan, which were transported by a special Pakistan International Airline (PIA) flight.

With a predictable pattern of urban flooding in Karachi, it is unacceptable that every year government officials appear in the media with lame excuses.

Disaster prevention and mitigation have become a science. It includes preparedness and capacity building for rapid response and recovery. Projections on the magnitude of the disaster, keeping historical trends in mind and analyzing exposure to calamity are key.

In the event of flooding, vulnerable residential areas, underpasses, roads, health facilities, poorly maintained infrastructure (maintenance of more than 50 storm drains from Karachi and Leh to Rawalpindi, etc., compel the relevant departments to ensure effective and efficient disaster prevention and mitigation mechanisms.

According to a report published by Tulane University of Louisiana, New Orleans, “Mitigation and prevention efforts aim to reduce the potential damage and suffering that a disaster can cause. Mitigation specifically refers to actions taken that can reduce the severity of the impact of a disaster – investing in risk-limiting measures that can significantly reduce the burden of disasters.

The report further states: “Strategies to protect vulnerable communities and limit risk include: raising awareness of potential risks and how to manage them, educating the public on how to properly prepare for different types of disasters, installing and strengthening forecasting and warning systems and building partnerships between sectors and agencies at the federal, provincial and local levels to collaborate on mitigation projects.

We notice the same trends over the years, especially in the case of monsoon floods. We can mark areas; we can ensure proper maintenance of water flow at the level where it has historically been recorded. We should have the budget to buy the necessary equipment for road drainage.

According to Roadex Network, a collaboration of road organizations in northern Europe, “The main objective of a road drainage system is to remove water from the road and its surroundings. The road drainage system consists of two parts: dewatering and drainage. Drying consists of evacuating rainwater from the surface of the road. Drainage, on the other hand, covers all the different infrastructure elements to keep the road structure dry.

The report states: “In Sweden, dewatering is divided into two parts: runoff and dewatering. Runoff covers water that flows from the pavement surface via shoulders and interior grades to ditches. Dewatering covers the collection and transport of water from the road surface and structure so that there are no ponds on the road or in ditches.

The Tulane University report suggests, “Disaster preparedness requires contingency planning, advance decisions on the management of human and monetary resources, the coordination of procedures between different agencies, and the organization of logistics. Contingency plans answer three fundamental questions: What will happen? What will be the answer? What are we going to do first?”

Policy makers can greatly benefit from global experiences to reduce human suffering and minimize losses from persistent natural calamities.

The author is Associate Professor of Management Science and Director of Center for Islamic Finance at Lahore Campus of COMSATS University (CUI). He can be contacted at [email protected]

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