In floods’ defense

Noreen Haider attempts to dispel misconceptions and explain why this wonderful rhythm of life has become a disaster

In floods’ defense
I am still amazed at how people refer to flood as a ‘disaster’ not understanding what floods actually are and how they become a disaster. This article is an attempt to dispel some misconceptions and try to explain why and how this wonderful rhythm of life has become a disaster for the people.

Riverine floods are actually an amazing gift of nature. The fertile river plains are replenished by the generous rivers flowing in them, bringing the minerals and priceless alluvium which is the source of the fertility for the lands. During floods the rivers swell with access waters coming down from the mountains and proudly make their way through their ancient routes replenishing the earth and underwater aquifers and ultimately falling in the ocean. They are the lifeline of planet earth and the harbinger of prosperity.

Pakistanis started Ramzan amid flood misery in 2010
Pakistanis started Ramzan amid flood misery in 2010

Riverine floods are actually an amazing gift of nature

In the Indus plains the rivers have sustained civilization for the last five thousand years and it is the riverine floods that have ensured the cultivation of enough food for the countless millions that have lived here along the rivers. If there were no floods the civilizations would have long perished even in the presence of the rivers. The reason is that in ancient times it was only the natural force of the rivers during the floods which inundated the land and made it possible for the people to use it for irrigation through channels build from the river to the fields. The water was pushed inland through its natural force and it was stored by building small ponds and protective bunds. Therefore the life, civilization, food, flora, fauna and everything related to human life is the gift of the perineal floods since times immemorial.

The people from ancient times knew and understood that and they loved and worshiped the rivers as gods and goddesses. From ancient times, poetry, music, dance and folk tales all have been created and flourished on and along the rivers and the floods were awaited as an esteemed guest from afar. But how did this notion change? How the generous floods became a ‘disaster’ and how come the floods are now being referred to as a ‘wrath of God’?

The answer is present in the disrespectful way humans have been treating nature and in recent times some of the mega disasters that we have seen in the world, including those caused by the massive floods, is nature striking back.

Jinnah Barrage
Jinnah Barrage

Nature is striking back

The rivers have been flowing unobstructed on their ancient routes for thousands of years, and the development on and along the rivers is but a very recent phenomenon. It is extremely important to realize that a large river in flood has tremendous force which is unfathomable and has the capacity to eradicate anything and everything in its path. Therefore the development on and along the rivers has to be done with extreme caution and diligent planning, being fully cognizant of the dynamics of the rivers in and out of floods. All development has to ensure that the natural flow of the river is maintained and is not hampered in any way which could cause blockage. The development must also be done keeping in mind the historic flow patterns and inundation levels for last hundred years for it to be sustainable.

In 2010 people in Pakistan were hit by a mega disaster after the Indus flooded and it was called one of the worst natural disasters in Pakistan. However it was anything but ‘natural’. In the 2010 floods more than three thousand small and large bridges were completely destroyed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa among hundreds of other structures including roads and houses etc. A few months after the floods there was an important seminar held in Peshawar by the Institute of Engineers, Pakistan, on the reasons of structure failure in Khyber Pakhtun Khawa.  I happened to attend the highly informative seminar chaired by the Chief Minister KPK himself. The conclusion reached by civil engineers from all over the country was that the major reason for the massive damage was ill planning and faulty construction of bridges without due consideration of the flood risk. The ill constructed bridges were just waiting to be destroyed and the mighty Indus was just too enormous a force to give them any chance. The flood although very high was not to be blamed.

People taking shelter after the Indus River flood, August 2010
People taking shelter after the Indus River flood, August 2010

Development on and along the rivers has to be done with extreme caution

The swollen rivers have a fixed trajectory and ancient routes which they have followed forever but now the trajectory is not unobstructed as before. The rivers have been harnessed by man and there are so many small and medium structures build on them including, dams, barrages and head works and so the rivers have to negotiate their way under these structures. It is only rational that if there is not enough space for the flooded river it will remove the obstruction. The structure will give at the weakest point and be swept away unless some alternate route is immediately made available.

To give an example , in 2010 Indus was in very high flood and it created a massive destruction in its wake as it entered Punjab but as the water reached Jinnah Barrage in Mianwali the flood gates were not fully operative. According to the Judicial Flood Fact Finding Tribunal 2010 report1, chapter 3, “that during High/Medium Flood, all gates of the barrage are opened and repair work (upstream or downstream) is stopped so that the water may pass through the barrage without causing any damage to the structure of the barrage. During recent floods, it has been observed that In the 3rd week of July Medium flood arrived in the river, however, neither the gates were opened nor stone dumping work was stopped. On 27.07.2010, high flood was observed. On 29.07.2010 till noon the water discharge was noted as 6,25,000 Cfs. When the information was received from Tarbela Dam that 2,00,000 Cfs was heading to the Barrage the Officers opened the barrage gates, but due to high pressure of water, the gates were opened with difficultly. Consequently, LMB was completely washed away which caused damage of 80 to 90 crores to the national exchequer. It is astonishing that incompetent and corrupt officers due to their personal greed caused loss to the Barrage Structure and LMB (4500 ft), out of which only 50 ft remained intact and the remaining portion of the LMB completely washed away”.

The tribunal report ‘A Rude Awakening’ has not been made public by the Punjab government.

Four further breaches were made and the right guide bunds were blown up by the help of army to dispel the waters. This resulted in major flooding of hundreds of villages and dozens of towns in Mianwali district as the water with unprecedented ferocity entered inland.

Muzzafargarh Canal
Muzzafargarh Canal

In 2010 Pakistan was hit by a mega disaster after the Indus flooded

Even this was not enough to awake the staff at Taunsa Barrage where the water reached approximately fifty hours afterwards. The regular supervisor at Taunsa Barrage was suspended by the chief Minister a few days prior to the heavy floods and the new staff was just not competent enough. By the time Indus reached Taunsa Barrage the gates were not fully operative there and it resulted in one of the worst flood disasters in history.

On August 2 2010, the left marginal bund of Taunsa Barrage collapsed at RD30-32. The tremendous body of water resulting from this made its way inland, finding its way into TP Link Canal. ‘The Taunsa-Punjnad Canal has the capacity of 1,500 cusecs but it experienced a surge of more than 3,000 cusecs of water, and breached at various points. TP Canal’s banks were breached by the irrigation department at various other points. The water from TP Canal was drained into Muzaffargarh Canal. Muzaffargarh canal breached at several places and the bursting of bands of TP and Muzaffargarh Canals completely inundated Kot Addu, Dera Din Panah, Mehmoood Kot, Jhoke Utra, Ghousabad, Shero, Basti Pattal and Qasba Gujrat, where the water rose up to fifteen feet and more at some places. More than half-a-million were affected in addition to badly affected railway infrastructure, causing suspension of railway traffic.’2

In an emergency the Punjab Irrigation department made frantic efforts to divert the Indus water into Chenab and made breaches in TP Canal for that purpose. Some effort was made to save PARCO and the KAPCO Power Plants and breaches were made on Rangpur Canal and Muzaffargarh Canals but the officials later admitted that the breaches did not succeed in diverting the floodwaters into Chenab River rather contributed in the further inundation of Tehsil Kot Addu and surrounding areas.

The results were astounding and the damage was massive. The canals took the flood waters into places which had not experienced flood in a thousand years. The Mighty Indus was ferocious and it travelled with great speed inland, crossed the ‘doab’ and actually joined the flood waters from Chenab.

I was there in Muzaffargarh for a week to witness that and it was truly frightening to see the two rivers becoming one. The Indus was carrying massive amount of debris, boulders, rock, tree trunks and millions of tons of water. There were also a huge number of snakes of all sizes in the water which had just been swept in by the river waters and could be seen swimming in it. The sheer magnitude of the force of the river can only be compared to a nuclear bomb. Indus is one of the mightiest rivers of the world which has tidal wave in it. It commands greatest respect and sheer awe. It simply cannot be trifled with.

What happened can be compared with the derailing of a huge train which has been derailed due to the negligence of the incompetent staff. The derailed Indus, only thousands of times mightier did not leave anything intact in its path.

Whenever and wherever the river waters are blocked due to ill planned roads, bridges and other encroachments, there would be flooding and devastation. The recent example is the 60 feet road built diagonally in the flood drainage area of Chenab which caused massive flooding in Chiniot district in 2014.

The Motorway built traverses the flood water drainage area near Qadirabad which is the real reason of the massive flooding of hundreds of villages in Pindi Bhattian and Hafizabad area. The path of the river water has simply been blocked and the water has nowhere to go but inland.

The answer to flood control is not by building more structures but by removing all the ill constructed structures and encroachments that are blocking the natural passage of the rivers. There are only two things to be done, mitigation and adaptation.

The people must realize that if they continue to build, habitat and cultivate in the bed of the rivers then it is but a matter of time that the flood will get them. It is just as simple as if someone would place his household items in the path of a train or on a major highway and not expect that it will be blown away. The people in the flood plains know this and have the wisdom to move themselves and their livestock away from the highest inundation mark of the river. If the river floods and inundates the plains naturally they will be safe but if the rivers are tampered with the results can be devastating.

The thing to remember is that the rivers are not flowing naturally in the Indus plains. The river waters are being maneuvered, managed and manipulated by various management agencies the most important of them is IRSA, Indus River System Authority. The water of one river is diverted into another by the various link canals. Therefore the water of river Chenab is diverted into Ravi, River Jhelum is diverted into Chenab and the water of River Indus is diverted into Jhelum. This is the reason that there is always a margin of human error and the mismanagement and miscalculation of water volume and timings of floods can cause it to go out of control. In 2014 due to miscalculation of the volume of water and its timings, the flood waters were not managed effectively and the high flood in both rivers Chenab and Jhelum reached Trimmu barrage at the exact same time. The sheer volume of the two rivers was so large that the bund had to be blasted away at the last minute to save the barrage and Jhang city, which resulted in the massive flooding of Tehsil Athara Hazari.

In order to mitigate the risk the government must make sure that prior to the floods, the dams and barrages are fully functional and repaired, the staff of the barrages and dams must be fully alert, equipped and vigilant of the flow patterns, volume and the expected times of the arrival of the high volume of floods, the breaching sections fully prepared and ready, the inundation levels fully marked, the people in the area alerted and evacuated, the rivers fully respected and the blockages fully removed from the total path of the rivers. All the staff at various barrages and rivers should be in complete coordination with each other.

If this is observed then I assure you that the rivers will not leave their paths to travel inland and cause flooding and they will flow in their glorious majesty bringing prosperity to this land as they have been doing for thousands of years.