Analysis & Opinions - Express Tribune

Facing Future Floods Safely

| Nov. 01, 2022

Pakistan’s floods of 2022 were the latest, and most damaging yet, addition to its long history of floods

Pakistan’s floods of 2022 were the latest, and most damaging yet, addition to the long history of floods in the country. As the muddy waters slowly recede, the need for speeding up action to face future floods stands clear.

Floods have been the most frequent natural disaster in Pakistan. Yet, decisions for land-use and habitation do not reflect this reality. The rising intensity of floods has been concurrent with an increasing population in the flood plains of the Indus river. It is this confluence of water and people in floodplains that creates the tragedy of lost lives and property. The flood of 2022 has led to reported losses of over 1700 lives, affected 33 million people, and incurred damages of over $40 billion (amounting to 11.5% of the 2021 national GDP). The flood of 2010 led to a loss of over 1200 lives, loss of homes for over 14 million people, and damages of over $43 billion. The flood of 1992 led to a loss of 2000 lives, affected more than 9.3 million people and incurred damages of over 1 billion dollars. This list continues on. Each was declared the worst flood in Pakistan’s history. Each was unprecedented at its time of occurrence. There is precedent for unprecedented floods in the country.

It is time to focus on setting a different kind of precedent — one with a clear focus on elevating the safety of people in rural, flood prone areas, and elevating the well-being of farmers who bear the most losses.

The prevailing mindset of flood management has to change. In the past, money has been poured in building levees and flood protection infrastructure, and then again on re-building higher and reinforcing more the structures to “fight” the next flood after each cycle of levee breaches, infrastructure failure, and devastation of lives and properties. Gilbert White, a prominent 20th century geographer, noted this adverse cycle, and advocated for including the role of humans in damages resulting from natural disasters. He warned about the trap of building levees, followed by eventual breaching and flooding, and then rebuilding again, with increasing level of damages in each flooding episode. The so-called “levee effect”, empirically observed in several river basins around the world, points to the paradox where building higher levees has led to increasing levels of flood damages. This is due to flood protection infrastructure creating a perception of flood security, leading to relaxation of rules for land-use and construction over time, and increasing density of habitation. This results in greater exposure of lives and properties to floods. It is time to see and stop this cycle. This can be done if policymakers and people recognise the role of human decisions in contributing to the disaster. When we recognise responsibility for our actions, we gain agency for change.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Siddiqi, Afreen.“Facing Future Floods Safely.” Express Tribune, November 1, 2022.