Pakistan Must Act Now to Fight the Next Floods
The country, standing at a crossroads of natural and economic disasters, must urgently take control of its water flows.
In the last week of August 2022, a massive flood hit Pakistan, bringing havoc to more than one-third of the country. Per estimates provided by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the flood has caused a total financial loss of nearly $40 billion. The ravages include 1,500 deaths (including 380 children), the loss of 24.5 million livestock, and the destruction of over 5,000 kilometers of roads and 1.17 million houses. Moreover, according to the United Nations, the catastrophe has displaced around 33 million people in the country, which has invited an additional economic burden on the government.
Notably, the tragic flood hit as the country battles an economic crisis. At present, Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves stand at only $8.8 billion, leaving the country on the brink of federal economic failure.
It is important to note that in 2010, another destructive flood appeared in the same regions recently affected by the August flood. If precautionary measures had been adopted after the 2010 flood, the intensity of the losses in the wake of the most recent flood could have been minimized.
The debate naturally moved the existing water management system in Pakistan. Currently, there are only three major reservoirs in the country, which store a total of around 13.1 million acre feet (MAF) of surface water. These are: Tarbela, Mangla, and Chashma dams, which were opened in 1976, 1965, and 1971, respectively. Initially, the combined original storage capacity of these dams was 15.8 MAF, but capacity has declined due to sedimentation. Unfortunately, no dam with a similar storage capacity has been constructed in the country since 1971. Moreover, although there are several other smaller dams, their storage capacities are not substantial. Indeed, Pakistan discharges around 30 MAF of river water into the sea each year, whereas the required amount of annual discharge at the Kotri dam is only 8 MAF.
On the one hand, the above statistics indicate that there is an abundant annual flow of surface freshwater in Pakistan. On the other hand, however, the country is considered a water-scarce territory due to its per capita availability of water, which is estimated to only be 935 cubic meters. This creates two paradoxical situations: there is frequent flooding in significant portions of Pakistan, which indicates an abundance of surface water, while the country still faces a scarcity of freshwater.
In actuality, the entire issue rests upon Pakistan’s dearth of sustainable water management projects. This insufficiency causes floods in monsoon seasons due to higher rainfalls and the melting of glaciers, whereas it leads to water scarcity when climate-caused reductions in precipitation occur.
What Can Be Done?
Pakistan urgently needs to create plans for sustainably managing its existing freshwater resources. Such plans should also account for all demographic aspects and must include forecasts of any potential natural hazards associated with climate change. The timely execution of these plans is particularly important so that the momentum of future floods could be reduced.
Considering the country’s fragile economic condition, the government can adopt the public-private partnership (PPP) model to procure funds for constructing and managing sustainable water management schemes. PPPs can serve as a way to fund and build public infrastructure by using the resources and capacities of the private sector. To adopt this model, the government should invite bids from the private sector for planning and executing sustainable water management plans.
For instance, in 2019, the Pakistani company Descon, in a joint venture with the Chinese company Gezhouba, won a bid to construct the Mohmand Dam, which has a water storage capacity of 300,000 cusecs of water. Similar PPPs should be pursued to deliver sustainable water management plans and reduce the financial burden on the government.
Nasir Javaid is working as a Senior Research Analyst at the Urban Unit, Government of Punjab, Pakistan. He has a master's degree in Business and Public Policy from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He tweets at @nasir_minhas
Sumaira Riaz is a health professional pursuing master’s degree in Healthcare Management and Innovation from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Her research interests include public health, health policy, sustainability, and public policy. She tweets @sumairariaz107