As the Monsoon season comes to an end in Pakistan, flood managers throughout the country are breathing a sigh of relief. Pakistan is one of the countries most threatened by extreme weather[1] – in 2010 alone, floods led to over 3000 deaths and approximately $9.7 billion in economic losses.[2] Better policies are needed to reduce flood risk, and research led by think tanks like the Sustainable Development Policy Institute is helping to inform how these take shape. This post looks at current flood risk management in Pakistan and highlights some areas for improvement.

[Editor’s note: This is the third post in a blog series on think tanks and climate change, edited by Nikki Lulham and Erika Malich. Imran Saqib Khalid is a Research Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad, Pakistan. SDPI is one of 43 policy research institutions that receive support from the Think Tank Initiative. Imran heads the water governance in Pakistan component of the Pathways to Resilience in Semi-arid Economies (PRISE) project. PRISE is a multi-country research consortium within the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia, a jointly funded initiative between the UK Department for International Development and Canada’s International Development Research Centre.]

Flooding along Pakistan’s rivers has thankfully been relatively minimal this year, but flash floods in Chitral (in northern Pakistan) still caused more than 50 deaths. Over the past six years, floods have come to be expected during the Monsoons, often resulting in lost lives, the displacement of entire communities, and significant damage to the economy. Unfortunately, climate scientists warn that Pakistan will experience even more flooding as the world continues to warm. Trends in the occurrence, frequency, scale, and impact of recent flooding events are clearly linked with climate change.

As it happens, flooding is one of the most damaging natural disasters in the world. A 2005 study put the economic losses from floods at $6 billion, however these are expected to increase to over $50 billion annually by 2050[3]. Yet, a significant proportion of these losses are preventable. As Gilbert White, renowned American geographer, once remarked: “Floods are acts of God, but flood losses are largely acts of man.”

Who is most at risk from flood events?

Floods may appear to be short-term events, but their impacts linger on well after the last drop of water has disappeared. The Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), where I work, is researching the political economy of water governance in Pakistan, within the context of a multi-country collaborative research project called Pathways to Resilience in Semi-arid Economies or PRISE. A part of our research aims to highlight institutional vulnerabilities in managing flood risks in Pakistan. We started by identifying two districts in the Punjab province (Dera Ghazi Khan and Jhang) that have historically been susceptible to riverine flooding, and went on to conduct vulnerability analyses in a number of communities within these districts. Perhaps not surprisingly, we found that it is the poor who are most likely to bear the brunt of natural disasters.

Why, you might ask? Firstly, many poorer communities are located in flood plains. This means that when flood events happen, there is a higher likelihood of infrastructural losses, including the destruction of people’s homes. Also, poorer people often lack diversification in terms of assets (or even a bank account), meaning that virtually all of what they own is lost following a disaster. Worse still, there is often a lag time for flood waters to drain, meaning that those who are affected also lose access to the land upon which their livelihood is dependent for an indeterminate amount of time. Research shows that their inability to cope with the situation leaves them with little recourse. This, in turn, makes them more vulnerable during future disasters.

To reduce flood risk for poor populations, we first need better data to help inform how decisions are made. However, Pakistan has not had a national census since 1998. Why does this matter? This means that public decision-making, for the most part, is largely based on data sets that are nearly two decades old and that don’t necessarily reflect the realities of the current population. This has significant repercussions in terms of how we plan for natural disasters and respond to them, as well as how we try to reduce risk for those who are most vulnerable. Unfortunately, SDPI’s research also shows that people continue to move onto flood plains, as there are no checks on flood zone development in the country.

How can flood risk management be improved?

Historically, Pakistan’s response to floods has been reactive rather than proactive.  However, a focus on flood protection alone is inadequate, since research and experience show that complete protection in the face of fast approaching floodwaters is simply unachievable. This is primarily due to the high costs involved, as well uncertainty in ever-changing climate scenarios. What, then, can be done to reduce risks from flooding for those who are most vulnerable?

There is an urgent need to develop strategies for effective flood risk management and enhanced resilience. This requires a strong understanding of the various organizations involved in flood planning and response, combined with better data about populations and physical infrastructure that are at risk. The Council of Common Interest, a high level governmental decision-making body, will be well advised to take the human dimension of governance into account when making a decision about the next population census.

Flood risk information needs to be widely disseminated amongst the communities. This will help warn them about upcoming flood events, while also making them aware of available response and recovery initiatives. Steps should also be taken to enhance the role of locally based non-governmental organizations in flood risk areas. These organizations have been integral to the success of post-flood and disaster relief in many areas of Pakistan, and drawing on their experience could help to improve disaster risk planning.

Similarly, there is a need for improved development planning in the country, as land use planning is non-existent in flood plains. Very little has been done by the government thus far to try and relocate those at extreme risk to higher ground, or to change the zoning of land located in flood plains. Research shows that building bundhs or embankments is alone not sufficient for improving resilience to flood events. Comprehensive land use and management plans can help flood managers address challenges posed by climate change, particularly flood risk, by limiting development in flood prone areas, improving forecasting and evacuation systems, and promoting the use of natural features within the landscape to manage flood waters. They may also help to encourage the development of insurance mechanisms to reduce risk from loss or damage of assets.

The time to act is now

With an ever-increasing population, haphazard development patterns, and a changing climate, we need to quickly rethink our approach to disaster risk management. This requires a focus on adaptation and resilience, combined with consistent and integrated policy, legislation, and planning processes at all levels of government – federal, provincial, and district. Moreover, better coordination between national and provincial disaster management agencies, local governments, non-governmental entities, and communities is absolutely key, with roles clearly outlined in disaster risk management plans.

Think tanks like SDPI play an important role in researching these kinds of complex issues, and engaging with stakeholders to help improve evidence-based decision-making. SDPI has been engaging with government representatives from different levels, as well as with non-government stakeholders, throughout the course of the PRISE project. We have been regularly sharing our progress and research findings with them, including through seminars and policy briefs. All of this, in turn, is helping to inform new approaches for reducing flood risk.

Pakistan can ill afford another episode like the 2010 floods. Yet, we have to be prepared for such an eventuality, if we are to reduce risk for those who are most vulnerable.

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[1] Kreft et al. 2015. Global Climate Risk Index 2016, German Watch EV. https://germanwatch.org/en/download/13503.pdf. Accessed 23 Oct 2016

[2] "ADB-WB Assess Pakistan Flood Damage At $9.7 Billion". The World Bank 2016. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2010/10/14/adb-wb-assess-pakistan-flood-damage-at-97-billion. Accessed 23 Oct. 2016.

[3] Hallegatte et al. 2013. Nature Climate Change 3: 802-806.