Comment: Where does the floodwater go?

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Aug 20, 2013.

I love clouds.

The way these wispy masses of liquid droplets take form, their types, the manner in which they reflect and scatter light to colour themselves and the careless abandon with which their infinite profiles defy geometrical shapes, all amuse me. But I am most blown away by the apparent and deceptive lightness of their being — the fluff puff of pretty that is ephemeral and glides by like a spirit and the dense burden they carry.

I admit I do not have a perfect memory but there was something about the clouds of July 23, 2001, in Islamabad and Rawalpindi that I cannot quite forget. It was as if the heavens had been compressed into a narrow street. Those clouds were superlative; the most majestic, the angriest formation of monsoon clouds I have ever witnessed.

When they burst, a total of 955mm of continuous rain was unleashed upon the two cities for over 10 hours. The resulting deluge caused the worst-ever flash flooding in Rawalpindi’s Nullah Leh. The ongoing 2013 monsoon season in Islamabad and Pindi reminded me of that freak cloudburst 12 years ago.

I remember talking to a climate change expert in mid-July. The Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) had predicted an above normal monsoon season from August back then, which would be tamer than the 2010 catastrophe. But the expert was cautious: “Do not ignore the surprises these rains could cause,” he had said.

Surprise, surprise! Recent rains have killed over 70 people, affected around 80,000 more, destroyed some 2,500 houses and damaged over 130,000 acres of agricultural land around Pakistan.

Pakistan is on the verge of becoming a water-scarce country. Our per capita water availability has decreased five times since 1947 and is currently around 1,000 cubic metres. So, where does all the floodwater go? The water goes away, perhaps, after standing in the streets, inundating houses, destroying livestock and livelihoods. Or it doesn’t. Things that are submerged stay submerged, including our collective will to take meaningful actions regarding floodwater management.

Research, by the PMD, shows that the unpredictability and variability of rains in Pakistan is increasing. It suggests water harvesting and water management through storage sites to turn the floods into an opportunity instead of a disaster. As the country faces floods for the fourth year running, it seems this is a good time for the authorities to think and follow these suggestions.

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