Surviving the Great Deluge

Policymakers need to understand urban flooding as an emerging hazard, writes Ahmad Ahsan

Surviving the Great Deluge
The gaping 200-feet-wide, 20-feet-deep sinkhole that emerged on The Mall in Lahore came as a surprise to many. For most observers and commentators, the problem rested in poor quality roadwork by the contractor. As residents welcomed respite from the blazing heat, few turned their attention to the emerging risk and extent of rapid urban flooding which brought the megalopolis to a standstill.

Pakistan has historically been vulnerable to flooding mainly in the monsoon period, when heavy rains lash large parts of the country leading to riverine floods. Heavy flooding in 1950, 1965 and 2010 resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, damages to infrastructure in the billions and the loss of livelihoods through destruction of standing crops and livestock. The country’s socioeconomic characteristics, punctuated by a reliance on agricultural and pastoral activities, and largely rural communities with residences unable to withstand heavy rain and winds, further aggravate the impact of flooding. The economic effect of the large scale floods that ravaged all four provinces of the country in 2010 alone was estimated at a whopping $43 billion.

The harbinger of development on one hand -  urbanisation - brings a number of increased risks and raised vulnerabilities on the other. Migration to developed urban areas is a direct cause of overcrowding with migrants swelling the ranks of the urban poor and taking up residence in marginal lands around urban centers that are prone to flooding and other risks. Research indicates that urbanising 50 percent of watershed (area of land that separates water flow) can dramatically increase the incidence of floods by as much as 20 times. Improper land use planning results in an increase in impervious ground surfaces, reducing water absorption and increasing potential damage due to urban flooding. Urban sprawl and development over flood ways can also impede water drainage. Another phenomenon that may contribute to urban flooding is the formation of an urban “heat island,” a heavily urbanised area that maintains a higher average temperature than its rural surroundings.
Vulnerability to floods is a complex combination of interrelated dynamics and mutually reinforcing conditions that require strategic cohesion for long-term effectiveness

Urban flooding has recently taken centre stage as a new type of natural hazard in the country that can quickly turn into a disaster. In July this year, Lahore, the capital of the Punjab, was lashed by heavy rainfall. Over 280 millimeters of rain swept the city, leaving 18 dead. The intense rain also caused damage to roads, caused widespread power outages, and paralysed movement in the city. These evident impacts of urban flooding have far reaching direct and indirect effects on social life, development, and economic growth.

The World Meteorological Organisation, through a significant body of scientific research, has opined that precipitation levels in the future will continue to vary leading to altered patterns of run-off. Complex modifications in weather system circulation will affect historic rainfall patterns and monsoon precipitation is generally expected to increase.

Flood loss prevention and mitigation requires large-scale measures, including construction of dams and dykes along waterways. Non-structural interventions based on a cohesive institutional approach include effective flood forecasting and early warning systems, utilisation of Geographical Information System based inundation maps to simulate flood extent, and increased awareness and capacity-building among first responders and vulnerable communities. The participation of non-governmental organisations and private entities in disaster management with effective coordination among key government stakeholders and mandated first responders is must also be encouraged. A combination of the aforementioned interventions, combined with grass root-level community outreach programs will be instrumental in bringing about much needed change in the Pakistani disaster management spectrum from a traditional, reactive practice to a proactive approach. Proactive management requires more effort, time, and financing to integrate both short- and long-term interventions; yet, ultimately, the proactive approach is what matters the most at the critical time before and after a disaster strikes.

It is no secret that local communities are the first line of defence and response in the event of any disaster. In the time it takes trained rescuers to reach the site of a hazard, immediate assistance is almost entirely provided by the communities themselves. The capacity of a community to collectively anticipate, act, and recover from a natural hazard prevents it from becoming a disaster. In the last decade, a new concept that emphasizes mitigation and prevention of disasters has emerged. This concept, called Community Based Disaster Risk Management, seeks to identify, analyse, monitor, and evaluate disaster risks to reduce vulnerabilities while simultaneously enhancing the capacity of vulnerable communities to deal with any natural or manmade hazard. CBDRM heavily relies on local knowledge and traditional best practices to address regional problems. This mode of giving communities ownership of interventions improves sustainability and empowers people for collective action.

In sharp contrast to rural areas, the impact of floods in urban areas is more complex. A number of factors such as depth, flow velocity, and duration must be taken into account to assess the true extent of damages. Urban Flood Risk Management or UFRM is a multi-disciplinary approach that is built upon diverse cross cutting roles by both government and non-government agents to develop a comprehensive, regionally specific, integrated, and balanced mechanism for flood risk management in urban settings.

Urban Flood Risk Management is built upon three components for strategising flood management frameworks: the first component is flood hazard control and defence through structural measures to cut down water levels, limit inundation, and reduce destructive effects of flooding. The second component seeks to address exposure by enhancing preparedness and adaptation through hard and soft capacity building. Hard capacity enhancement includes structural measures, while soft capacities include risk foresight and anticipation, adaptation, improving administrative aspects, and social management to avoid being in the path of risk in the first place. The third component of this approach addresses vulnerability by promoting measures to build resilience, such as awareness campaigns, flood risk financing, and relief, recovery, and reconstruction activities.

In order to ensure effectiveness of urban flood risk management in Pakistan, a number of important considerations must be taken into account. For starters, the geographical environment of various cities and identification of relevant hazards and risk factors must be utilized to create regionally tailor-made plans. UFRM must take all key stakeholders on board, including a wide number of government authorities and departments, particularly those involved in water management, weather forecasting, civil defense, planning and development, public finance, health, and power. Non-governmental organizations and private entities, including those with a diverse health and safety portfolio should also be on board. Institutional linkages between these two sectors will facilitate cooperative planning and preparedness. Depending on the available standards of flood control, weather forecasting, and emergency response, realistic targets and goals must be established for the harmonious implementation of UFRM. These goals may also serve multiple purposes in addition to flood mitigation, in the areas of water supply and management, groundwater recharge, and environmental improvement. It is also crucial to add that key development and construction activities, whether in urban or rural areas, must be thoroughly reviewed for their potential impact on flood management.

In conclusion, vulnerability to floods is a complex combination of interrelated dynamics and mutually reinforcing conditions that require strategic cohesion for long-term effectiveness. Existing water management and flood risk control measures may not be robust enough to cope with extensive urban flooding and its impact on all sectors of society, including drinking water supply, sanitation, healthcare, agriculture, and food security. It is proposed that incorporation about climate variability be incorporated into development projects with emphasis on water related management being a key priority for all interventions in the commercial, infrastructure, and social sectors. Second, the effective use of technology to prepare inundation maps and simulated water flows in conjunction with a robust flood forecasting and early warning system may help alleviate the damage potential of floods in the future. Third and last, vulnerable communities in flood prone areas can be empowered to use mobile phones to learn basic measures for preparedness, and report damages to initiate timely relief and rescue efforts.