HOWEVER the state may want to spin it, in reality it is its neglect and ineptitude in taking long-term flood control measures that is responsible for the enormous loss of life and property in Punjab this monsoon.

When the floodwater submerged hundreds of villages, the prime minister contended that a sudden and unexpected flood was responsible for the damage. The Chenab River’s overflow may have been abrupt in Sialkot, but the floodwater took four to six days to travel from the north to the southern regions where it caused real havoc. What stopped the authorities from taking proactive measures in the high-risk southern districts?

Unlike earthquakes, floods can be forecast and managed. The problem is that even if our authorities become aware of a flooding river, they lack the capacity to meet the challenge. This is despite the fact that 17 floods have struck the country since 1950.

Almost every year, Sialkot district is hit by localised flooding in the nullahs. Not a single major project has been launched to restrict overflowing rivers from entering human settlements.

Unlike earthquakes, floods can be forecast and managed.
The government knows only one method of dealing with floods — building embankments alongside rivers and breaching them to divert waters towards rural areas in order to save towns and cities or irrigation structures.

The practice has been marked by financial scandals and political manoeuvring. In 2010, fingers were pointed at defects in the upgradation of Taunsa Barrage. This time, the breach in a spur at Punjnad Headworks has raised questions.

The Chenab runs through the plains of Punjab and densely populated regions. A suitable method of flood control here could be ‘river training’, whereby new water channels or spurs (‘cut-offs’ in technical jargon) can be built on the necks of the Chenab’s meandering course, which will taper the river water’s high peaks.

Modernisation of irrigation headworks is also urgently required for long-term flood mitigation measures. During high floods, protection embankments are breached to divert floodwater to fields in rural areas to save the headworks by preventing a quantity of water that exceeds their capacity from passing through.

In Punjab, most headworks such as Khanki, Trimmu and Punjnad were built during the British period and need improvement. These structures have lost part of their capacity owing to inefficient operations by careless engineers, resulting in siltation and reduced capacity.

The old headworks and bridges should be widened to allow more quantity of water to flow through them. Embankments near cities such as Jhang and Multan need to be shored up. The government spends billions of rupees to compensate losses post flooding. Why can’t it spend a relatively smaller amount on proactive mitigation measures?

Corruption in the building and maintenance of embankments along the rivers is a major issue. Huge amounts are embezzled by using substandard material in building these structures and by keeping their heights lower than specified.

During flooding, irrigation officers justify breaching of embankments by publicising inflated figures of water flows. If the actual, and much lower, quantity of floodwater is known, questions will arise as to why the embankments could not withstand the pressure. Unless strict measures are taken to check the corruption, floods will continue to wreak havoc. Alarmingly, for the last one decade, rivers have been receiving high flows more frequently than before. During the last 14 years, this is the eighth severe flooding in our rivers. In comparison, the country witnessed only nine floods in the preceding 53 years, from 1947 to 2000.

Climate experts predict an uneven distribution of mon****soon rains which may come in shor*ter but more in**tense bursts. These climate changes fur***ther necessitate long-term preventive steps for flood mitigation.

Until these are taken, the government needs to boost the emergency rescue capacity of flood-prone communities. It can provide large boats in villages on a permanent basis so that people could evacuate safely at the time of flooding. In each flood, military boats are called in for evacuation, but they cover only a small portion of the affected area. These community boats can be kept at schools to be used in emergency.

Similarly, inhabitants of riverine areas (also known as khaddar or kacha) living in mud houses suffer more losses than others. The government should launch a project to provide soft loans to these people for building baked brick houses on a raised platform to minimise the possibility of damage.

Death and destruction wrought by flooding are closely linked to poor governance. They cannot be covered up by the theatrics of the rulers on media and by meagre handouts to flood victims. The correct answer lies in preventive projects.

The writer is a Lahore-based journalist and researcher.