Floods may be good but not without proper management

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 23, 2013.

Pakistan needs to improve its floodplain management, think about water conservation and focus on harnessing the power of excessive rains to solve its water crisis, according to experts at a ceremony in the federal capital on Wednesday.

The ceremony was organised by the Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC) in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Pakistan to mark the International Day of Biological Diversity 2013.

The theme for the 2013 Biodiversity day, which is celebrated annually on May 22, was “Water and Biodiversity.” Coincidentally, the United Nations has also marked 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation.

Speakers said the objectives of floodplain management are to limit the level of flooding and to protect natural habitat and wildlife from floods by adopting regulations for the floodplains, ensuring effective flood control and finding ways to protecting communities that live in flood-prone areas.

A floodplain is usually an area bordering a river that floods when the river receives more water than it can hold during flooding season, Dr Masood Arshad, senior programme manager of the WWF-Pakistan, explained to the audience.

Arshad said the British built embankments around the rivers in present-day Pakistan to protect adjoining settled areas from excess water but this model failed to serve its purpose during the 2010 floods.

He shared the recommendations of the Ramsar Advisory Mission (RAM) which visited Pakistan in 2012 to study the impact of the 2010 floods and offer suggestions for floods mitigation. The RAM is an international technical assistance mechanism in resolving problems related to wetlands.

Among its 10 suggestions, the mission recommended that soft engineering solutions should be integrated in the floods management mechanism in addition to “hard engineering” flood responses such as construction of dams and embankments.

The soft solutions include restoring the natural flood storage capacity of the floodplain by removing illegal structures and constraining embankments from the floodplains, said Mehmood Nasir, the Inspector General of Forestry at the MoCC. This would allow the passage of high flows during the flooding season, he said.

Nasir said China had deployed a similar model successfully to control annual flooding in the Yangtze River.

“We should widen the path of the river’s flow and allow the flood water to spread into the floodplains,” he said. “The excess water will recharge aquifers, replenish underground water reservoirs and even help restore lakes that have become poisonous.”

Nasir said Pakistan needs to look at floods as a “blessing” rather than as a catastrophe and floodplain management should be made a part of policy.

The RAM also recommended identified of pilot project sites for diverting flood water and maintaining natural flows to the Arabian Sea so sea intrusion can be prevented.

Gul Najam Jamy, the assistant country director of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said Pakistan was a water stressed country and the per capita availability for water is decreasing. The per capita water availability has fallen to 1,000 cubic metres in 2013 from around 5,600 cubic metres in 1947, according to official estimates.

Jamy cited the common practice of flash-flooding of rice paddies by farmers and leakage of water in supply systems and said that Pakistan has a national culture of excessive and inefficient water usage.

“Just because we think we have a grand plan to build a big national dam, we shun our daily responsibilities to save water,” he said.

He said governments should take up water harvesting and individuals should also contribute to conserving water resources.

Kowkab Iqbal, a lawyer from Islamabad, said people should be made aware of the presence of Green Benches in High Courts, so they can move the court against environmental degradations, especially water pollution-related issues.

Children from the Mashal Model School — a welfare learning institute in Nurpur Shahan for underprivileged children — presented a tableau depicting the way human activities such as industrialization and urbanization have negatively affected biodiversity and water resources.

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