Climate change and our unpreparedness
Heavy and thunderous rains during the monsoons are not a new phenomenon. What is new is the change in weather patterns. This year, there have been unexpected rains in the months of May and June, which are recounted even in children’s books as times of dry and burning heat. Unexpected weather is happening, not only in Pakistan and India, but also all over the world. Among such unexpected weather events are the torrential rains after long droughts in California, searing heat in the American south, uncontrollable forest fires in northern Canada, whose smoke blanketed New York, Toronto and Chicago, unprecedent hot weather in China. These are unmistakable signs of climate change, which is not a far off crisis – it is happening right now.
The question for Pakistan, and in this article specifically for Lahore, is how to cope with these unprecedented weather events, arising from the climate change? Obviously, weather and climate are beyond our country’s control without global actions, but coping with these challenges is a local and national responsibility. Pakistan in general and Lahore in particular are not set up to cope with rain floods and heavy downpours.
It is not enough for Ms. Sherry Rehman, the Federal Minister for the Environment, to shame rich countries and demand climate reparations in the name of environmental redress. The national focus should also pivot to what can be done by us here and now, not while we wait for UN handouts and ringing statements. Lahore is an illustrative case of what we should and could be doing.
The rain bomb did not differentiate between the rich and the poor.
Any substantial rain in Lahore always brings flooded streets and some deaths from collapsed houses and electrocution from carelessly strewn electric wires on the ground. Flooded Laxmi Chowk is an image of an after-rain situation seared in the memories of Lahoris. Now the underpasses of the innumerable signal-free roads also present a permanent rain flood trap. The facilitation of traffic has come with the hazard of submerged cars. Yet these events happen every year, but once they pass their memory is wiped out.
The rains of July 5th and 6th flooded roads and streets almost everywhere. Not only were the low-income neighborhoods and northern and south-western communities inundated, but Gulberg, Garden and Johar Towns as well as DHA were flooded. The rain bomb did not differentiate between the rich and the poor. YouTube videos of the rainstorm in many parts of the city posted on social media bear the testimony of this shared fate.
Poor drainage is the source of people’s misery. And that is the failure of Lahore’s decision-makers, both political and professional. Drainage is essentially the system of clearing water run-off from roads, streets, roofs, parks and other surfaces. It is normally designed as a separate system from sewerage, which carries highly polluted toilet, bath and kitchen wastewater. Drainage is such a neglected service that in Master Plans and public policy documents, it is barely mentioned.
In Lahore, drainage receives a ritualistic annual statement of solving street floods. Mostly, the sewerage system is used for drainage, though that itself has remained piecemeal and is a major contributor of turning River Ravi into a veritable sewer. There are only 180 kilometers of primary drains, but 3,610 kilometers of sewers. The Walled City, Mozang, Wasanpura and other older and poorer parts of the city have open brick-lined drains, which also serve as sewers. They often spill filthy water in streets on being blocked by garbage, and all the more during rains. Without adequate drainage system, Lahore will be witnessing even more floods as the climate continues to turn weather patterns unpredictable.
Public (collective) goods and Lahore’s quality of life
Community life is essentially based on interdependence. Air quality, sanitation, epidemic prevention, crime control, emergency services and road and traffic management, for example, are largely indivisible. One cannot fully benefit from them without such facilities being available to all. Collective use is the basis of public goods.
The city needs to address this problem by a well-conceived drainage system that considers climate challenges, beginning with clearing natural drains of obstructions.
Drainage has the characteristics of a public good. An area may manage to drain its run-off water, but it is likely to dump it on neighboring communities and nearby fields. Yet the residents of such areas will still be facing flooded roads and trapped water, when they go out of their protected neighborhoods. The early July rains did not spare any area, no matter how segregated and gated it was.
The rainwater must be channeled towards natural drains, held and released in manageable quantities over time. Lahore deals with its rain floods through an ad-hoc annual emergency pumping blitz. The city needs to address this problem by a well-conceived drainage system that considers climate challenges, beginning with clearing natural drains of obstructions.
Decentralized drainage to deal with rainwater in the 21st century
A new drainage infrastructure needs to be built, as little exists. Why not build it anticipating climate challenges? Lahore’s drainage short falls are also opportunities to build green infrastructure based mostly on bioengineering technologies and social mobilization. Instead of dreaming for internationally funded costly engineering projects of a city-wide network of underground drainage tunnels and pipes, contemporary research suggests that hybrid green-blue-grey and decentralized facilities can be more effective and economical to collect, clean and dispose rain water on site at the neighborhood level. They are affordable, not requiring foreign loans.
The basic principle of green-decentralized drainage is to collect rain water by channeling it into built ponds within sectors and communities of cities. The starting point should be making housing societies responsible for storing and disposing rain water within their areas. Some ponds will be for storage and seepage to replenish aquifers, lined with filtration materials such as limestone and activated charcoal, while others may just hold water to slow release over time in drains, swales and partial underground grey infrastructure of pipes and tunnels. The Lahore of the old days used to have dungay (depressed) grounds, where rainwater used to collect, slowly seeping into the soil.
Lahore is caught in a real estate frenzy. How can the political and commercial interests driving this frenzy be neutralized?
Similarly, wherever suitable, wetlands should be designed and planted with flora and weeds specially chosen to clean water and prevent breeding dengue and malarial mosquitos. I am not here offering a plan, but pointing out ideas that are being discussed in contemporary professional literature. The goal should be to view rain bombs as a resource to be utilized for replenishing the water supply. Another element of green infrastructure is to reduce paved surfaces and provide grass-lined channels for run-off water along streets. Green roofs, treelined roads, grass verges and rainwater storage containers in houses and courtyards are other ways of reducing the flood-inducing volumes of rainwater.
An environmental responsive approach to adapt to the climate crisis requires a new mindset from both the political and professional leadership. It presupposes people’s involvement, which comes with citizen participation in their neighborhood affairs and responsive local government. It requires civic education and the use of TV, radio and social media to raise people’s awareness, which also necessitates involving them in local decisions. Social policies and green technologies hold promise. Yet at the moment, it all appears to be a distant dream. Lahore is caught in a real estate frenzy. How can the political and commercial interests driving this frenzy be neutralized? Lahore’s response to ever intensifying rainstorms must begin with restraining the property speculation.