IN what has become a consistent pattern, large parts of Punjab and Sindh are facing devastation on account of monsoon-induced flash floods. Given that this is the fifth successive year that large swathes of the Indus Valley have been severely inundated by rains during the late summer months, one can only wonder why those responsible for such matters have not tried to buck the trend.

Sadly but predictably, the corporate media has not really been asking piercing questions of the powers-that-be. It is more interested in the ongoing stage drama on Constitution Avenue/D-Chowk. Live coverage of flood-affected areas would ostensibly force the bureaucracy and government — and the rest of us — out of our collective stupor and into thinking about long-term remedies to a serious problem.

To the extent that the mainstream media is commenting on the flooding, a substantial amount of time and energy is being dedicated to demonising India for apparently exacerbating the problem by discharging more water than usual into ‘our’ rivers. Given that India-haters usually bash the old ‘enemy’ for withholding water, the propagandist nature of the present accusation merits no response.

What is true is that it has rained much more in Indian Punjab than anywhere in Pakistan and that the surfeit of water upstream has flowed into the Chenab and Jhelum rivers on our side of the border, thus causing the devastation. This, of course, has nothing to do with India’s evil designs, and at most should reignite the debate over the Indus Water Treaty.

There are problems with much of our water infrastructure.
The geographical spread of the monsoon rains also means that relatively developed regions like Sialkot, Gujranwala and Chiniot have suffered the brunt of the floods so far. In summers past eastern and central districts were far less affected than the Seraiki regions to their south and west. Of course, the brunt of nature is such that the floodwaters are sweeping all before them as they travel towards the sea, ie many regions face devastation even though they have experienced little rain.

Indeed, ‘experts’ are fearing the worst for more than one of the many barrages that litter the Indus Valley basin, starting with Head Trimu near Jhang, close to where the Chenab and Jhelum meet. The Sukkur and Guddu barrages in upper Sindh are also said to be facing severe strain and potentially calamitous breaches.

Quite aside from the ad hoc ‘solutions’ that engineer-bureaucrats are devising by the minute — most of which involve deliberate breaches of dykes so as to divert the onrushing water — there still appears to be something resembling a consensus amongst decision-makers about barrages, canals and dams, namely that such infrastructure is indispensable and that we must save what already exists and build more where we can.

Humanity has long harnessed natural resources, water most of all, as a means of reproducing and enhancing social life. It will continue to do so in the future, as it should. But modern technology can and should be questioned, especially when the evidence suggests an urgent need to do so.

There are serious problems with much of our most celebrated mega water infrastructure; the storage capacity of dams like Tarbela and Mangla has been severely curtailed by the piling up of silt over decades and natural drainage systems that could ostensibly help us manage our water resources better have been left to decay.

Yet despite the failings of engineering science, and even while the wrath of the floods unfurls, some are lamenting the fact that floodwaters are going to ‘waste’. This is a lament similar to that which some progressives feel vis-à-vis untapped coal reserves in the Thar desert and minerals in the far reaches of Balochistan.

The dialectical relationship bet*ween human society and the eco-system that sustains it, relatively stable for thousands of years, has been thrown into complete disarray over the past half century precisely because of our insistence that all natural resources must be mobilised for human use, without delay.

Or should I say multi-national corporations ever seeking new sources of profit insist on the ruthless exploitation of nature? Yet the scandal that is capitalism will be exposed only when the consuming public turns against the money-making monstrosities that thrive by commodifying everything.

In the final analysis, mega water projects should only be thought of as a means to facilitate human progress, not least because maintaining a balance between ‘development’ and the natural environment is crucial to the survival of future generations. This means questioning those who accord dams, canals and barrages God-like status. As we are witnessing for the umpteenth time, what Nehru once called ‘modern temples’ can have effects as profane as any other modern human invention.