Monday, August 23, 2010

Floods In Pakistan: Unfolding Humanitarian Disaster

Since the Indus began to flood northern Pakistan on 29th July, a major humanitarian disaster has unfolded, documented by the world’s media (within the UK to make a donation via the Disaster Emergency Committee, DEC, go to or to Islamic Relief UK The disaster almost seems to be in slow motion as the floodwaters have made their way the length of the river, flooding and destroying lives and livelihoods in their wake. (Ban Ki-moon described the floods as a slow-motion tsunami to emphasis the cumulative and long-term nature of the disaster, Reports and analysis have ranged widely encompassing subjects as diverse as the flood hydrology of the river, the plight of people unwilling to leave their crops and livestock until the last minute (if even then), the slowness of aid provision (see comments of Louis-George Arsenault of UNICEF ), the ability of the government to respond and the exploitation of the situation by terrorists. The unfolding disaster has also highlighted, to me at least, the limitations of a blog. Trying to get across the complexity and inter-relatedness of the disaster and its development in a short, pithy few hundreds words is beyond difficult. Such a limited space can’t do justice to the disaster or its victims but rather than say nothing I will try to provide some short bursts of thoughts on different aspects of hazards analysis this disaster highlights. Importantly, this disaster has been played out in a Western media seemingly not quite sure what to make of Pakistan and its people in the light of Western visions of terrorist groups and their relationship to the Pakistani government and people, whether this relatinoship is real or imaginary.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will look at the floods from slightly different angles. The first outlines the physical basis of flood and then points out some potential human influences that may have added to the disaster, the second looks at vulnerability of people, the third discuss relief and aid. They are not meant to be comprehensive, just short perspectives on a major catastrophe.

To set the scene the following graphics, drawn from the BBC website, illustrate the extent of the problem. Figure 1 illustrates the extent of the flooded area. The classification of what ‘moderately’ and ‘severely’ affected means is not clear, but the important fact to bear in mind is the vast scale, the absolute area affected by the flood waters. The total number of deaths may appear to be undramatic at the moment (although not to the 1,600 or so who have died), but the potential for deaths and the death toll, like the disaster itself, may be slow to fully unfold. Not only are the immediate effects of inundation a problem but the breakdown of the infrastructure is a vital aspect of this disaster. The destruction of roads and other means of transport mean that the usual methods of delivering aid can not be used. The rolling, wave-like nature of the disaster is illustrated by the hydrographs within the figure. The date of the peak flow changes as you go downstream. This means that the infrastructure is progressively destroyed in the direction form which aid could come.

Figure 1 Extent of floods (source BBC website)

Figures 2 and 3, before and after the floods satellite images, illustrate the extent of the flooding once again but also highlight the relatively fertile nature of the area flooded. The desert area surrounds the green zone in the before image (Figure 2), but a large portion of this green area turns blue-green after the floods (Figure 3). This highlights the often mentioned future disaster of reduced agricultural output for the immediate future. In other words, the disaster doesn’t stop when the flood water recede; people need to somehow get back to their land (although the landlord-tenant arrangements may mean it is not actually their land but land they farm) and then try to salvage what crops and livestock they can to support them into the future. In addition to flooding, the heavy rainfall can also induced landslides which add to the problems of aid delivery as well as being a major hazard in themselves (see Dave Petley's landslide blog for updates

Figure 2 Satellite image of before floods - 2009 (Source BBC website)

Figure 3 Satellite iamge of after floods - 2010 (Source BBC website)

This is a very simple outline of the physical basis of the disaster – unprecedented rainfall, massive floodwaters surging, albeit slowly, down the most fertile regions of Pakistan. The language makes this an unavoidable natural disaster. Several news reports have begun to ask what lessons can Pakistan learn from the floods contrasting them with past floods in Africa (forgetting the different contexts or the fact that Pakistan is still working through this disaster!)

There has been some discussion of humanly induced aspects to the flooding. Mason Inman in National Geographic News on 16th August ( points out that the expansion of the British canal system, started under colonial rule, by river managers has resulted in a river system that canalized and dammed, where waters are diverted to feed the needs of agriculture. The positive aspect of this system is the improved agricultural development, the downside the lack of a ‘natural’ ability to absorb higher than engineered for flows as the ‘safety valves’ of the wetlands have been settled by and converted to farmland. An additional problem caused by canalization is the deposition of silt in the channels reducing their capacity to carry the floodwaters. The Indus is a glacially feed river and so has a relatively high silt content, this silt would have been deposited in the wetlands or move to the sea in uncanalized rivers. (Dr Daanish Mustafa of King’s College London has undertaken research in this field and his web pages are worth a visit )

So are floods really the fault of the population? Was the flooding avoidable if the Pakistani people had planned more carefully. Such a question is fairly typical of the dominant approach to hazard analysis – of identifying the victims as culprits and laying blame and responsibility on their actions. To some extent this is the approach of the more recent newsreports about 'what can Pakistan learn' - as if the disaster is a test and unless you learn this time we will not be as understanding next time! A crude assessment but hopefully makes the point. At a simplistic level it sounds reasonable – an extreme natural event made worse by the actions of the people it impacts upon. Such a view misses seeing the context or understanding why people behave as they do. The same argument of ‘it’s your own fault’ could be laid at New Orleans and the failure of the flood management system – would that be acceptable? Would that be fair?

Agricultural development is vital to feed a growing population, without development of the floodplain would this have been possible? Does the diverted water actually go to the small farmers or are the irrigation schemes developed by larger more commercial farmers who have the resources to pay for dams and the like? Is the problem the floods themselves or the overall vulnerability of the population impacted by the floods? (the subject of the next blog). Do individual small farmers, the victims seen in the media, actually have any control over the canalization schemes, or the development of the floodplain; what organisation or organisations do? Do the small farmers actually own the land or is it rented with all the implications of the needed to grow cash crops to pay the rent, lack of resources to improve the land, to afford water management schemes, etc. that this implies? If the farmers do rent, then what are the implications for reconstruction policies that will help them? These questions, and many others, highlight that a sequence of economic, social and political decisions have contributed to the disaster but to say these decisions were deliberate or to use them to shift responsibility for the disaster onto the victims is simplistic in the extreme and very unfair. The small farmers, the families fleeing when all hope of saving their farms is lost, are all images of powerlessness; they are not also images of those who are responsibility. They are images of people who have been in the wrong place at the wrong time when a confluence of extreme physical events and a sequence of human events beyond their control produce a disaster. Please give generously.

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