Flood management: Pak can look to Chinese model for help

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Oct 21, 2013.

Islamabad – China sought help from continental Europe to manage its floods problem. Pakistan does not have to look farther than the People’s Republic.

In 1998, China’s 6,300-kilometre-long Yangtze River suffered what could be termed the Chinese equivalent of the 2010 Pakistan floods. Around 79.6 million Chinese were affected, 1,384 people died and direct economic losses from the high waters were estimated at just over $15 billion.

Rapid population growth and poor flood control policies might have exacerbated the impact of the 1998 Yangtze River floods. But in the disaster’s wake, according to a recent Ramsar Advisory Mission report, China adopted an “integrated” flood management strategy based on the way European countries are managing the River Rhine.

As a result, the Chinese government started “working with nature rather than fighting it” and came up with a series of non-engineering interventions such as restoring flood plains, reforestation and relocating communities away from flood-prone areas. Despite implementation flaws, the integrated strategy has reduced flood risks in China and brought socioeconomic benefits, the mission’s report stated.

The advisory mission, a technical assistance mechanism for countries such as Pakistan who have ratified the Ramsar Convention — an interg0vernmental treaty for protection of wetlands — visited Pakistan for a week in late 2012. Its complete report, with recommendations for “wise-use of floods” in the Indus River basin, was released in June 2013.

The mission’s report noted that there was “lack of an integrated basin approach to the management of the (Indus) river” and “insufficient coordination” between the various agencies that manage the river.

The mission counted at least seven different agencies somehow related to floods management, with only one, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), having some kind of a coordinating role. But even IRSA’s responsibility is limited to water allocation among the provinces, according to the mission, which comprised of four international and national experts.

Pakistan needs a “broad-based coordinating authority” for sustainable management of the Indus basin and its resources as well as pollution control and flood management, the mission recommended.

“Do we need an overarching agency? Absolutely,” said Shafqat Kakakhel, a former Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “We need a federal-level office to deal with climate change-related issues including floods.”

While the National Climate Change Policy launched by the Government in February 2013 called for more water storage sites to absorb floodwater, the Ramsar mission advised against an exclusively “hard-engineering” dam-based solution.

Instead, it suggested an “integrated approach” that includes ecological, non-structural flood protection strategies. These range from management of floodplains (flat areas next to rivers and streams which flood when the water level rises) to restoring lakes that can then also store the floodwater and creating alternative livelihood opportunities for riverine communities.

An ecosystem-based approach, such as the integrated model recommended by the mission, is essential, said Mahmood Akhtar Cheema, the Country Director of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Pakistan.

“We have to think in terms of alternatives, both for managing our water resources and excess water, and also helping local communities,” Cheema said. “We can have best returns from an ecosystem-based approach.”

Fortunately, the Federal Flood Commission (FFC) has included the mission’s recommendations about integrated flood management in its 4th National Flood Protection Plan, which is being prepared with the help of consultant organisation, National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK).

A draft of the plan, which covers the entire Indus River basin, would be ready by February 2014, said a FFC official, who requested anonymity.

“With the draft plan, we would have a basic document to streamline flood management efforts before the Monsoon season of 2014,” the official told The Express Tribune.

The mission’s report also emphasized the removing illegal encroachments from the floodplains because these constrict the natural flow of floodwater, increasing its velocity and force downstream.

“We are looking at the ecological aspects of the floods and managing the rivers in the plan as well,” the FFC official said. “But in addition to the natural hazards, we have to face the social set-up which allows such encroachments on the floodplains.”

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