Questions raised about planning as floods again swamp Pakistan

by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio | @saleemzeal | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 10 September 2014 08:30 GMT

A couple wades through a flooded road after heavy rains in Lahore, Pakistan, on September 4, 2014. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

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Civil authorities say they lack funds to respond, as Army steps in

JHELUM, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Four days after floodwaters began surging through Punjab province last week, the province’s chief minister called a meeting with top government and department heads and urged them to respond effectively to the unfolding devastation.

By that time, however, Pakistan’s Army had already mounted a rescue and relief operation, using five helicopters, 300 motorized boats and scores of heavy vehicles to move scores of the estimated 6,500 people stranded by flooding in Pakistan to higher ground, according to Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), media wing of Pakistan Army.

“Along with my family, I would have been dead for sure had the military helicopter not arrived,” said Zulfiqar Ali, one of those rescued in Jhelum, a city in north Punjab, which has seen the River Jhelum reach levels not seen since record 2010 flooding. “They spotted us when we were standing on the rooftop of our house, surrounded by waist-deep floodwater.”

Heavy monsoon rains and flash flooding in Punjab, Gilgit-Baltistan provinces and Pakistan-administered Kashmir since September 1 have unleashed devastation, claiming at least 231 lives, injuring more than 400 people and sweeping away crops that were nearly ready to harvest as well as homes and public infrastructure, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in Islamabad.

But the floods have also brought growing frustration with how slowly Pakistan’s provincial and city authorities have moved to address the current flooding – and to take long-term measures to protect flood-prone regions from threats worsened by climate change.

In many flood-hit areas, civil authorities failed to launch rescue or relief efforts in the early days of the floods, a problem in part due to lack of both funds and capacity, according to Naseer Ahmed, managing director of the Water and Sanitation Agency in Lahore.

‘WE SAW NO ONE’

“We saw no one from civil government departments come to rescue us,” lamented Ali, the rescued 45-year-old rice farmer in Jhelum, where 135 mm (5.3 inches) of rain fell on Sept. 5 alone, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD).

Mustafa Hussain, 54, who runs a flour mill in flood-hit Sialkot, also in northeast Punjab, said that when 207 mm (8.1 inches) of rain fell in his district on Sept. 6, “no one from the irrigation, water and sanitation, or the disaster management department came for us. It is always too late when they come.”

Arshad H. Abbasi, a water and energy expert at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute – an Islamabad-based think-tank – said that since 2010 international donor agencies such as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank have extended several hundred billion rupees (more than $1 billion) in funding to Pakistan to improve the country’s flood resilience. But little seems to be happening on the ground and the country remains highly vulnerable to flood disasters, he said.

“Floods are a global phenomenon, to which Pakistan is no exception. But loss of the life and damage to properties and public infrastructure and crops can be minimized significantly. This is not happening in Pakistan for different reasons (such as) corruption, mismanagement, lack of political will and lack of technical manpower,” he said.

DELAYS IN FUNDING?

But government officials say a lack of funds, or long delays in the funding being made available, make it difficult for them to build up country’s flood resilience. Funding has not arrived in time for work such as dredging drainage channels, sewers and streams, or strengthening river banks that can breach in the face of floodwater, they said.

But Punjab province’s Public Accounts Committee Chairman Mahmoodur Rashid said money is reaching authorities but is not being effectively spent.

“It is a matter of concern that last year Lahore Development Authority was allocated around 25 billions rupees ($245 million) and nearly as much this year for development activities and maintenance of public infrastructure. But it has fallen flat to deliver,” he said, as “low-lying areas of Lahore are in knee-deep floodwater.”

However, officials in the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) and the Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) in Lahore, which are responsible for projects including maintenance of drainage networks in the city, say slowdowns in receiving funding are behind the problem.

“Delayed release of budgetary allocations was the key roadblock to completion of water, sanitation and drainage development projects in different parts of the city. If funds are allocated in a timely manner, we will be able to complete the projects on time,” said Ahmed, WASA’s managing director.

Ahmed admits that in most of the cities of Punjab province, where half of the country's 180 million population lives, if it rains more than 80 milimetres (3.14 inches) in a day, then civil government departments struggle to control and respond to flooding. Lahore received 518 mm (20.4 inches) of rain from Sept. 1-6, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department.

Since the start of the month, most of the northeast of Pakistan has received over 350 mm (13.80 inches) of rain, resulting in widespread flooding and deaths.

Ahmed told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Lahore that his department in June wrote to the office of the Punjab provincial Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, asking for funding for the rehabilitation and expansion of the city sanitation system as well as upgrades to the underground drainage system. They did not receive a response, he said.

A few months ago, the provincial government prepared a plan for rehabilitation of the Lahore city drainage system, at a cost of around nine billion rupees ($88 million), but so far work has not started, Ahmed said. The Lahore Water and Sanitation Company similarly has been “dormant,” said Mahmoodur Rashid, of the provincial Public Accounts Committee.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are science and climate change correspondents based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

(Editing by Laurie Goering; laurie.goering@thomsonreuters.com)

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