Safeguarding Dams Against Future Flooding in Balochistan

Safeguarding Dams Against Future Flooding in Balochistan
On the night of August 22, 2022, Umair Hussain, a resident of Hazara Town in Quetta, was filling up buckets of rainwater that had inundated the yard of his house to throw out in the street. Around him, others also clutched buckets out to clear their yards, nervously glancing up at the mountain for a sign of breach in the dam. Even in the darkness, he could see tenable signs of fear on their faces.

Then the worst happened. The authorities decided to open the spillways of the Karkhasa Dam in the Chiltan mountain range around Quetta, and the community in the downstream Hazara Town, already struggling with rain that had continued for days without having let up, found gushing floodwater entering their houses.

"On one hand, the walls of the house had weakened due to accumulation of water in the house,” said Umair Hussain, 32, "and on the other, rumors about the collapse of the dam above made us panic."

Hussain's house is right next to the flood spill nullah (channel) bringing water from the Karkhasa Dam. Record rains had already wreaked havoc in the suburbs of Quetta city and now Hazara Town, a settlement with a population of more than two hundred thousand, was also under threat. There were cracks in the Karkhasa dam and if the dam broke, the community feared that their town would be destroyed.

When the spillways of the dam were opened late at night, floodwater in the nullah exceeded its capacity, entering houses in the town. It was no longer safe for people, including Umair and his family, to stay in their houses. The next morning, when the floodwater had subsided and Umair returned to his house, it was reduced to rubble. He kept thinking that if he and his neighbors had not encroached on the course of the flood channel, perhaps they would have been spared the huge financial loss.

Floodwater from the Karkhasa Dam, released when the water level rose to dangerous levels after the rains, affected Hazara Town, A1 City, Qadirabad, Aminabad and other areas. According to local activist Kashif Haidari, it damaged more than 50 houses in one area of Hazara Town alone.

"There were many houses built along the drain and they all became piles of rubble," said Haidari. "Encroachments at various points on the channel have put people in the way of natural flow of floodwater. In places, it has also diverted the flow towards the community instead of following a clear exit path.”

Fortunately, the Karkhsa Dam along Quetta's Western Bypass Road did not break due to timely release of excess water. But would the dam maintain its structural integrity if such a disaster as this monsoon season visited the country again? Due to the floods, 103 dams had been severely affected in Balochistan, of which 40 dams had been completely destroyed. People and environmentalists wonder if disaster risk reduction measures were being taken to protect the population from damage in case of dam bursts.

The rains and subsequent floods left a long trail of devastation across Balochistan in their wake. According to the Provincial Disaster Management Authority's report, 336 people died due to rains and floods in the province between June and August 2022. Around 1.3 million people had to be relocated, with 235,000 thousand houses completely or partially destroyed.

According to a PDMA report, most incidents of dam related damage occurred in Qila Abdullah, where 38 dams were destroyed. 15 small dams broke or cracked in Quetta, with 11 others in the Khuzdar district. Nine dams broke in Hub, Dera Bugti and Bela, seven in Kachhi, five dams each in Chagai Nushki, Harnai, Zhob and Musa Khel. Similarly, four dams in Kharan Washuk and Mastung districts, three dams in Kech, two dams each in Kohlu and Kalat, and one dam each in Surab and Duki districts have been decommissioned.

According to the report, about 22 billion rupees were needed for the construction and repair of these dams, and the canal system in the province, which would take a period of four years. The size of a dam depended on the purpose for which it was being constructed at the time of planning, said Dr. Deen Mohammad Kakar, a geological expert. The main purpose of a dam, said Dr. Kakar, was to store water used for irrigation and drinking besides generating electricity. Apart from this, he said, they were also used for recreational purposes, groundwater recharge and flood management. If excess water fell into its storage, arrangement were made to drain it through spillways - passageways for surplus water, he said.

Dr. Kakar said there were international codes for dams that determined the size and quality of safety measures, and the risk factors (threats) to take into account. "Without enforcing Disaster Risk Management, dams like Karkhasa were the biggest threat to population," he added.

In common parlance, Disaster Risk Management (or DRR) is the application of disaster risk reduction policies and strategies to prevent the risk of new disasters, reduce the risk of existing disasters and manage residual risk, thereby strengthening resilience by helping reduce losses from disasters. Disaster Risk Management plans, devised by the national, provincial and district disaster management authorities, are meant to set goals and specific objectives for disaster risk reduction. Since DRR needs to be scaled up across all development obligations such as the Sustainable Development Goals, it is done under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 that seeks to reduce losses in terms of lives and property, disaster preparedness at the community level and international cooperation around disasters risks and climate change action.

The community at Hazara Town is well aware that encroachments at the nullah are the main reason for flood related destruction in the area. “We have decided to remove these encroachments to ensure the water flows smoothly, without any obstacle,” said Hadi Askari, a tribal and political leader belonging to the Hazara community. Askari said the district administration was asked to help community take down the encroachments, irrespective of who might be affected by this.

After the recent floods, there had been efforts to reduce risk in case of a natural calamity but not much is being done to help build capacities of local communities to tackle such disasters in future. “The government and NGOs are focusing on relief and rehabilitation but no one is working to create awareness among local communities [about DRR],” said Askari. "How could they prepare for such disasters in future, then? Our plan is to get help from the technical experts, hold awareness campaigns on community based disasters risk reduction in Hazara Town, especially regarding floods and earthquakes."

Deputy Director PDMA Asghar Jamali said the government of Balochistan had hired MICON Engineering Consultants, an expert firm, to study and devise a disaster risk management plan that would be adopted by the province. "The ongoing development projects, and risk management in case of any future disaster, will be effectively planned," he said.

According to Safdar Iqbal, a consultant and engineer working on dams, the reason behind the failure of dams was poor planning and construction, a problem that points to lack of DRR. "If a dam is not properly designed, quality materials not used or quality control not maintained during construction, or if the dam is built properly but its operation and maintenance not properly maintained through regular health checks, [it leads to damage]" he said.

Another major reason was excess water, he said.  "In such a case, spillway structures are built to drain excess water. But if these spillways are not in accordance with the standard design, a dam could burst."

The size and number of spillways depended on the size of the dam and its water capacity, said Iqbal, as well as the inflow of water, which might be rain or other sources. "Thus, if the spillways are under-designed, or there is no data available regarding rainfall or water inflow or the suitability of the area for the construction of the dam, but yet a dam is built there, it could cause dam failure," he said.

Balochistan has the largest number of dams of all the provinces in Pakistan. According to a report released by the Pakistan Flood Commission in 2020, there are a total of 1,007 dams in the country, of which 710 are in Balochistan - 150 completed large dams, 65 proposed and 31 ongoing. The purpose of constructing such a large number of small dams in Balochistan, a water scarce province with arid landmass, is to store water. The water needs of the province, prone to drought for decades now, are largely met through these small dams. They usually store rainwater, the main source of which is the monsoon rains.

In the province, there is no research to predict rainfall at the time when dams are proposed. There is no separate institution for disaster risk management, nor is there a separate body to monitor dams. This is done by the provincial irrigation department responsible for matters related to water management in the province - be it floods, rivers, the canal system or small and big dams.

According to the Secretary for the Irrigation Department, Mohammad Abdul Fateh, this year the monsoon rains were heavy. They destroyed small dams. "However, this number is one or two percent, we have saved many dams and saved many areas from submergence," he said.

Asked whether substandard materials were used during the construction of the dams, inspections were not carried out during construction and construction was not done as per design, the Secretary Irrigation said that "the possibility of human error cannot be ruled out." He said that the government was carrying out an investigation into this. The Irrigation Department blamed unusual rainfall compared to previous years, causing dams to break. Meanwhile, those involved in building dams do not agree that the blame lies with the builders.

"The contractor is not at fault. Contracts are sold here. A good contractor is neither given work nor paid on time," said Shafi Jan, a contractor who works with local and international organizations in the province on building dams and roads. He rejected allegations that dam collapse was the fault of the contractor. He said contracts were awarded 'on the basis of political influence'.  "Up to 65 per cent of the total amount from contractors is pocketed by 'politicians and officials of the irrigation department' in the form of 'commissions and bribes.'"

Officials in Balochistan have described the damage caused by the dams in the province as 'minor', but those who suffered financial losses say it would take those decades to recover. According to Deputy Commissioner Quetta Shaihak Baloch, measures were being taken to secure dams built around the city. He said the city administration would see to it that dams were strong, posing no danger to the population in future.

"When rumors started circulating about the collapse of the Karkhasa Dam, the district administration immediately looked into it and ensured that there was no such risk," said Deputy Commissioner Quetta Shaihak Baloch. "After the restoration process, further steps will be taken to protect the Karkhasa by implementing DRR and minimizing the risk of dam failure."