Lessons from the 2010 floods in Pakistan


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THERE is no doubt that climate change has much to do with the 2010 floods that displaced more than 14 million people in Pakistan, creating in its wake a humanitarian crisis larger than the combined effects of the three most serious natural disasters to strike in the past decade. The culprit river, Indus, one of the world’s greats, can only hold so much water. While floods are nothing new to it – in fact, its flood plains have been home to one of the earliest civilizations that we know of – the monsoons that contributed to its flow were unprecedented in human memory. In August 2010, more than half of the normal monsoon rains, typically spread over three months, fell in only one week. This resulted in a flow which exceeded the normal levels several fold.

It is also no secret that climate change is largely a result of rampant consumerism which, though reducing nature to resources meant for our consumption, is nevertheless necessary for generating ever higher profits for sustaining economic growth in capitalist economies. So, in the larger scheme of things, it is our relentless drive for economic growth that is to blame for these changing weather patterns.

However, the 2010 floods in Pakistan demonstrate much more than simply what might be expected from unsustainable development. The devastation caused by the floods was also a manifestation of the particular type of development path that Pakistan has followed over the years, its socio-political structure, and massive inequalities in resource distribution.

Contrary to the claims of the Pakistan government (or those made by Richard Holbrook for that matter, who described it as an ‘equal opportunity disaster’), the devastation caused by the floods was neither equitous nor inevitable. There is no direct correlation between the intensity of the floods and the destruction it unleashed. Instead, this relationship is heavily mediated by Pakistan’s unequal social structure and developmental experience.

Take for instance, the intensity of the floods. In the northwest of Pakistan, where the flood originated, devastating scenes of destruction were witnessed. Bridges, houses, and other man-made structures were swept away by the sheer force of the torrent as if they were made of paper. This intensity was in part a result of the deforestation that has gradually spread through Pakistan. The speed of flowing water increases manifold when there are no trees to hinder the passage of water. Similarly, with trees no longer holding down top soil, landslides become far more frequent. Deforestation represents a rather typical case of the Pakistan government allowing various interests (in this case, the ‘timber mafia’, which in turn supplies other businesses) to get away with pillaging the country’s resources (in this case forests) and government officials making a quick buck at the expense of long-term sustainability.


The state has continuously followed a policy of pillaging the environment and ‘modernizing’ ‘primitive’ communities with scant regard for the ecological disasters that are resulting in the wake of this laissez-faire policy. That deforestation could magnify the effect of a flood and cause landslides does not appear to be a major concern of the Environment Protection Agency, a body propped up to pay lip service to sustainable development and the environmental movement. Despite having been around for over a decade and having ‘qualified’ people on board, it has only been running standard environmental awareness campaigns, or implementing National Environmental Quality Standards (which have been superseded by ISO standards), unsurprisingly, with little effect. Connecting forests or flood plains to communities’ livelihoods appears to be beyond its comprehension or mandate.

In fact, the entire government machinery is configured in a way that makes coordination or the attainment of a bigger social goal difficult. Forests fall under the forest department, and environment under the EPA. Floods are the concern of the meteorological department, irrigation department and the newly created disaster management authorities. Different barrages are operated by different entities. Even within these organizations, coordination is absent, rendering their existence a mere ritual of governance.

Take the meteorological department (Met) for instance. Just prior to the flood, the different divisions of the Met, e.g., FFD (flood forecasting division), NWFC (national weather forecasting centre) and R&D (research and development), had their own forecasts which presented a fragmented and sometimes conflicting picture of the magnitude and nature of weather system developing at that point in time. For instance, the NWFC started issuing forecasts from mid-July that there was an unusual weather system developing in the Bay of Bengal. The FFD, however, issued no forecast about its consequences until 27 July 2010. It was only once real time data was available that they issued their first qualitative forecast. This too did not mention the possibility of super floods.

Meanwhile, the R&D department, for its part, did not issue even a single annual report about its research on climate change, global warming and this pattern of changing monsoon system, confining itself instead to the publication of an academic journal with articles by its employees.


What happened at the barrages presents further evidence of the ritualistic nature of state institutions. Barrages are the most important man-made structures that the torrents encountered on their way to the Arabian sea. Barrages raise the water level in rivers so that irrigation canals can be fed. In making barrages, the natural course of the river is diverted. Because of the pressure the river exerts on the sides when its course is being changed, barrages are preceded by training works, guide bunds and marginal bunds. These structures must be able to withstand the water pressure if neighbouring communities are to be protected.

Because of their critical importance, standard operating procedure dictates that all maintenance and development works on these structures be completed before the flood season starts in mid-June every year. This was openly violated in the case of Jinnah barrage located at Kalabagh. An emergency repair work, incidentally started over a year earlier, on the downstream apron of the Jinnah barrage, was still in progress when the flood hit the barrage in late July. Due to this work, around 10 gates out of a total of 56 gates of the barrage were closed, leaving the remaining 46 gates to take all the pressure. This resulted in increased pressure on the barrage and its allied structures as the closed gates created an obstruction to the flow of water. Even as the irrigation department tried to open these gates, a swirling action of waves resulted in a parallel flow alongside the left guide bund of the barrage which collapsed, exposing the neighbouring communities to the brunt of the water flow.


Further downstream, similar panic was witnessed at the recently rehabilitated Taunsa barrage. With World Bank funding, this barrage was recently equipped with a state of the art control system to operate the gates. Yet, when the floods hit this newly constructed structure, its control room was not operational. The reason is reflective of the complete mismatch between the plans of modernization and the capacity and preparedness of the concerned department, a phenomenon all too common in Pakistan. The entire project was funded (to the tune of Rs 600 million) and installed by foreign agencies using technology that was too advanced for the irrigation department. As a result, there were no trained technicians available to operate it, rendering the entire control room useless.

This state of unpreparedness was similarly reflected in the disaster management authorities that were created following the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Political rivalry between the Centre (dominated by the Pakistan People’s Party) and Punjab (ruled by the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz) meant that unlike other provinces and the Centre, there was no provincial disaster management authority in Punjab, Pakistan’s most densely populated province. At the Centre too, things had stopped moving after the creation of a National Disaster Management Authority. Four years after its creation, the NDMA had no national disaster management plan ready. The district level disaster management authorities that were to be created as part of the original plan, never came into existence.


Readiness for disasters such as this aside, the dynamics that transpired during the floods also reveals much about the Pakistani state. As the mighty Indus flows through Pakistan, it not only irrigates vast swathes of land in Punjab and Sindh, but also shapes the political structure of this traditionally agrarian country. Unsurprisingly, most of the land on both sides of the river is owned by prominent political figures of the country, who have a vested interest in protecting their area of cultivated land from any kind of eventualities/calamities.

These interests came to the fore as the Indus threatened to flood areas several miles to its left or right. State resources were indiscriminately used to build bunds (embankments) and breach canals. The result was invariably the same: exposing those most vulnerable to the floods while protecting those who were much better off. While the practice was universally applied, the poor people of Sindh, perhaps Pakistan’s most feudal province with the least land reforms, suffered most. Inhabitants of cities such as Kherpur, Karampur or Jampur paid with their lives to save the properties of their feudal masters.

All of the state’s resources were effectively placed at the disposal of the landed elite. If the poor wanted to save themselves or access these resources, they could only do so through the feudals in their district. The system in Pakistan at the best of times is based on political patronage. During the floods, it became the only way out for the poor, reinforcing their subordination to the landed elite.


The dependency relationship between the peasants and the feudal elite was not the only one that was strengthened during the floods. The same dynamics were apparent at the state level, as the country used the floods to extract more loans out of countries that it otherwise regularly accused of not respecting its sovereignty. The relief and rehabilitation work that ensued with the pledged $1.7 billion and the millions that were collected in charity was completely uncoordinated. Months after the floods people were still living in camps while waiting for support from the government. Meanwhile, the government used this opportunity to introduce new inflationary taxes earlier agreed to with the IMF but had not implemented for fear of a backlash.

The post-flood debate in the country’s political set-up largely focused on introducing flood taxes and reforming general sales taxes, leaving most people wondering that if the reformed GST was such an important issue, then why did the government have to wait for the floods to implement it? Naomi Klein would term this disaster capitalism, and she was not far off the mark. The politicians used the relief funds in a blatantly partisan manner to oblige their constituencies. The industrialists claimed corporate social responsibility brownie points. The army used it to redeem its much tarnished image, and the Americans to further their ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, with little impact, it has to be said.


In sum, as the Indus retreated, it rendered visible the desperate plight of a people, their chronic dependence on their feudal masters, and the contours of a society premised on inequality and oppression. Nothing has really changed in Pakistan. The 2010 flood will soon be forgotten, and with it the displaced families who, having lost their livestock and abodes, are still struggling to survive. It is doubtful if the state will discard its modernizing impulse fuelled by borrowed money in favour of a more community-based, eco-friendly model of development. It is also unlikely that the next flood will bring any less misery. The way things are developing in Pakistan, the vulnerability of people will only have increased by then.

Even if the meteorological department is able to get its act together, and the irrigation department fortifies all the barrages, poverty will still ensure that millions will be inhabiting riverbanks and living in shacks, entirely at the mercy of their feudal lords. Forests meanwhile will continue to disappear, and unplanned construction will continue to litter the flood plains, preparing traps for flood waters. And whichever government is in power will probably still be waiting to pass on new taxes to the hapless public. As tragic as the floods are, in the case of Pakistan they appear to be a smaller disaster than the one the people experience daily.