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Climate change, Deforestation and Corruption Combine to Drown Pakistan

Government officials believe deliberate human degradation of Pakistan's environment, along with a string of failings in engineering projects downstream, made the 2010 summer flooding worse



EPA, courtesy NOAA.gov

TARBELA RESERVOIR, Pakistan -- "I think, after terrorism, the biggest threat we have is the environmental decay."

Tariq Yousafzai, a water and environmental engineer with detailed knowledge of his country's water infrastructure, sees evidence of climate change in the flood disaster that inundated one-fifth of his country. But a more immediate concern of his is the massive deforestation that has silted up the waterways and left Pakistan more vulnerable to storms than ever.

The scene at this reservoir created by the Tarbela Dam and in areas to its north vividly shows what he's talking about. Long after the rains ended, the water level is still almost even with the rim of the dam, seemingly ready to spill over at any moment. Equally striking is the murky color of the water itself.

The color you see while flying over this man-made lake, nearly 100 square miles in area, isn't the azure blue more typical of rivers like the Indus, fed early by snowmelt and glacial runoff in high altitudes. Rather, the water is a soupy gray mixture, something like wet concrete.

A glance at the hillsides nearby immediately tells you why -- they've been almost completely stripped of their tree cover. The clear-cutting Yousafzai describes is seen throughout northern and central Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and extends almost to the Kashmir border. Massive quantities of silt that erode from the hills and mountains with each rain have given the Indus a gray hue well into the rugged northern country.

"Unfortunately, there is very little attention towards the accumulating environmental problems," Yousafzai said. He blames global warming for roughly a third of the flooding this summer. The rest was caused by deforestation, poor infrastructure development in the north, and engineering problems in irrigation systems in the south from mismanagement and neglect, he contends.

The government acknowledges that loss of tree cover has led to a serious problem. Compounding this problem is the lack of any plan, from either central or regional government authorities, to deal with the silting up of rivers and reservoirs. Environmental decay and a lack of maintenance of some flood barriers contributed heavily to the deluge, especially in the south.

"Our [environmental] degradational costs are increasing year by year, and eventually, time will come when it will be nearly impossible to manage them," said Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi, Pakistan's minister of environment. "So serious consideration is required."

Man-made causes include the 'timber mafia'
But government officials believe deliberate human degradation of Pakistan's environment, along with a string of failings in engineering projects downstream from Tarbela Dam, made the 2010 summer flooding only about 30 percent worse than it otherwise would have been, even as Yousafzai and others say it made the flooding 70 percent worse. While that debate rages on, officials are preparing for a Friday release of an assessment on damage to water and irrigation networks from the floods.

Preliminary estimates suggest that just under $200 million is needed to get the system back into shape. Looking ahead at rebuilding, however, most officials say even more expensive dams and diversion canals, and not less expensive ones, will be needed to protect the nation from the unprecedented downpours meteorologists fear will arrive about every decade, as some climate change models allude to.

Islamabad plans to ask the international community to pay for much of these, citing the responsibility of the rich world to help developing nations like Pakistan adapt to the feared ravages of climate change.

At the same time, ministers and civil servants are also promising a campaign of environmental stewardship, to restore forests and crack down on illegal logging that is to blame for almost three-quarters of the deforestation problem. Pakistani environmentalists, citing corruption and entrenched political interests, remain skeptical.

When Pakistan gained its independence, the nation was about 33 percent covered in forests. The government's own figures show that tree cover is now just 4 percent of Pakistan's land surface, the loss all due to deforestation.

Much of the cutting is due to poverty -- lacking other resources and fuels, Pakistanis have resorted to clearing their forests to cook their food and boil water for tea. But most attribute deforestation to Pakistan's famous "timber mafia," a shadowy network of politically connected individuals and firms that chop down trees at will and cart them away under cover of darkness, with bribes to local and national officials guaranteeing that forest managers look the other way.

Journalists have been speaking out about the timber mafia for years. In a recent op-ed in the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie called it "one of the most powerful and ruthless organizations within Pakistan," active in an illegal logging enterprise "estimated to be worth billions of rupees each year."

Historic downpour destroys poorly planned structures
Though the government has never reached agreement on a strategy to tackle illegal logging, the impact of deforestation is well-known. Since the Tarbela Dam was completed in 1976, the reservoir has lost roughly 26 percent of its total storage capacity, according to Pakistan's Ministry of Water and Power. Other reservoirs in the country have suffered capacity losses of 23 percent on average, all from siltation.

As the epic rains began in earnest in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from about July 28, torrents rushing from naked hillsides quickly filled the Indus and other rivers well beyond their natural limits. Tarbela Reservoir, with 26 percent less room for water, filled quickly.

The downpour was historic. At height of the rains, government equipment recorded discharges at the Kabul River at more than 400,000 cubic feet per second, or cusecs, said Javeed Bokhary, an engineering adviser at the Federal Flood Commission. The previous record, set in 1929, was 250,000 cusecs. No one knows the precise discharge rate, as the rushing waters overwhelmed gauges.

Poor urban planning in the north made the problem worse.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and parts of the Gilgit-Baltistan zone in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, buildings were placed right up alongside river banks, sometimes even in them. Bridges built after colonial times were also reinforced by infill that narrowed the river channels, to allow shorter bridges to be built and money to be saved on materials.

Flash floods consumed these buildings and bridges, killing scores. Much of the damage was also due to the fact that the Indus is partly used by illegal loggers to transport their bounty. Witnesses say logs smashed into homes and businesses and helped break bridges apart, adding to the catastrophe.

Critics of the government's flood response say that more water could have been kept in Tarbela Reservoir to spare communities downstream. Bokhary categorically denies this, saying that holding back any more water than the government did during the heavy rains would have risked dam failure.

"To fill the reservoir, there is a standard operating procedure. You cannot just fill it at random; you have to make do per day ... maximum 1,550 feet, and after 1,520 feet, you can only raise it by 1 foot per day," Bokhary explained in an interview. "There was still 20 feet of storage capacity ... but as I said, you cannot fill it by more than 1 foot per day. This capacity had to be released."

And while the rains were much heavier than ever experienced, the falling water also had much less river to flow through, even below Tarbela Dam.

As siltation has lifted the bottom of reservoirs, it has also raised the levels of most riverbeds. Evidence of the rise can be seen in the massive buildup of new islands upstream from Pakistan's dams, smaller dams built to raise river levels and channel more water into irrigation canals.

"These barrages [dams] have significantly lost their design capacity due to deposition of silt loads," noted Mushtaq Gaadi, an expert on the Indus water basin and a professor at Quaid-i-Azam University. "Both Jinnah and Taunsa barrages experienced the failure."

Wreckage blocks flood control channels
The crumbled mess of bridges and buildings upstream compounded the problem, creating in some places inadvertent dams that held back floodwaters briefly before releasing them en masse downstream, adding to the misery.

According to Pakistani government officials, their nation boasts the largest contiguous irrigation network in the world. Along with three massive dams, more than 4,000 miles of levees and numerous smaller dams, the system includes an intricate network of "link canals" designed to channel waters from westerly rivers eastward, to feed Pakistan's richest farming areas.

Government engineers say the system is a valuable flood control instrument, as it expands the area available to channel excess water, but this year, even this system was overwhelmed.

In Punjab, the government has in place designated breaching areas, where levees are packed with explosives that can be detonated in the event of excessive flooding. Deliberate breaching is necessary to prevent damage to the barrages, but officials failed to prevent populations from sprouting up in the areas designated as flood control zones. As a result, government water managers admit they were forced to flood thousands of homes to spare barrages and other floodworks.

Still, unintended breaches occurred throughout the system, caused by levees that failed largely because national and provincial authorities didn't bother to pay for their upkeep. It all accumulated into a man-made disaster that could have easily been averted or made much less worse, said professor Gaadi.

"I can say with certainty that the multiple engineering failures have exacerbated the flooding hazards in several ways," he said. "The design capacity of many barrages (Jinnah, Taunsa, Guddu, Sukkur, etcetera) proved insufficient due to rising riverbed. The breaches of embankments at or around barrages, deliberate or natural, thus became imperative."

In addition, irrigation works designed to avoid mass flooding incidents "either disrupted the flood flows or became the main vehicle for their transportation beyond the riverine areas," Gaadi added.

Gaadi says he has uncovered evidence that a World Bank-financed rehabilitation project around the Taunsa Barrage made things worse. Culvert dams put in during construction weren't removed once the $123 million project ended in early 2010, said Gaadi, pushing water over the left bank and flooding out villages the project should have saved. Seventy affected people began a three-day protest in front of World Bank offices in Islamabad to draw attention to the controversy.

Pakistanis active in the flood emergency response paint a more sinister picture to explain flooding in Sindh province, where no purposeful breaching systems exist. Here levees broke anyway, conveniently diverting floodwaters around prime agricultural land owned by wealthy politicians, swamping poor villages instead.

Deliberate levee breaks to save the wealthy?
The fact that much of the floodwaters in Sindh have yet to reach the sea is fueling heated speculation of tampering. Government sources refused to comment but say that an investigation is under way. The Sindh provincial government has appointed a commission to investigate deliberate breaks.

"The possibilities of deliberate breaches cannot be ruled out, whatever may be the findings of the inquiry," said Meer Muhammed Parihar, former secretary of Sindh's Irrigation and Power Department.

Population growth and settlement patterns also factored into the massive extent of the damage.

An utter lack of flood zoning and little attention to where settlements sprouted up led to millions of Pakistanis building their homes not only in front of designated government levee breaching areas, but also along riverbanks where major flooding can be expected every few years. Salvano Briceno, head of the United Nations' office for the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, put primary blame on these settlement patterns for Pakistan's woes.

"If people had not settled on the riverbanks, definitely the disaster would have been less," Briceno said at the onset of Pakistan's flood crisis. "That is the main cause of the disaster."

The government and many patriotic Pakistanis even blame India for some of the flooding. Floodgates along the Ravi and Sutlej rivers in the East are said to be controlled by India, and some officials in Islamabad accuse Indian officials of allowing too much water to be released downstream into Pakistan to protect their own territory.

Despite various conspiracy theories swirling about, all the major contributing engineering failures occurred in Pakistan, including levee breaks adjacent to populated areas, embankment overflows, and improper storage capacity in reservoirs and riverbeds.

"Negligence and lack proper supervision of the embankments on the part of irrigation officials and district administration is an admitted fact," Parihar added.

Scientists at the Pakistan Meteorological Department predict that another massive rainstorm event in the north can be expected in about a decade or so, giving engineers some time to prepare. Several new dam projects are already in the works.

Construction on the Munda Dam in the Swat Valley is now moving along at a faster clip as a result of the floods, said Bokhary at the Federal Flood Commission. That project should be completed in five to six years.

Farther north, officials have already approved construction of the Bhasha Dam, near the town of Chilas in Kashmir. But it won't be ready until 2020 at the earliest, provided funding is available, since construction requires that a portion of the famous Karakoram Highway be relocated to higher ground.

Political opposition slows crucial dam
Three other projects have passed the feasibility test. The largest of them is the controversial Kalabagh Dam project, a massive system that was proposed for the Indus south of Tarbela. The dam's design and planning is complete, and construction would have been finished well before the 2010 flood disaster, were it not for political opposition from the provincial governments of Punjab and Sindh.

Bokhary says that, ironically, both these provinces would have been spared from much of the worst effects of flooding in the south had Kalabagh Dam existed. Many officials and water infrastructure experts believe that discussions on Kalabagh will reopen soon.

"Any of these dams would have really helped," Bokhary said. "Now we have to prepare plans for future floods because the global warming phenomenon is going to have a lot of effect on us."

Officials expect to release on Friday a final bill of what it will cost to repair the nation's irrigation and hydropower system to pre-flood conditions. Initial estimates put the cost at roughly 14 billion rupees, or just under $200 million. The bulk -- about $130 million -- is probably needed for repairs to existing infrastructure, with the rest to bring ongoing construction projects back online.

But officials at the Ministry of Water and Power say hundreds of millions of dollars more, if not billions, will be needed to complete all major dam projects now planned or proposed. Restoring the system just to pre-2010 levels is unacceptable, they say, pointing to projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that Pakistan will experience more extreme weather events in the years ahead.

The government says it plans to seek international financial assistance for the long-term recovery and infrastructure enhancements, including new dams. But officials also insist that they will do their part, cognizant of the role that deforestation, excess siltation and poor maintenance played in the disaster.

Is 'mega-afforestation' in the works?
Afridi, Pakistan's environment minister, said in an interview that legislation is being prepared that will create a comprehensive forestry policy in Pakistan. The bill, scheduled to go before the Cabinet soon, would promote "mega-afforestation" while implementing better monitoring and enforcement to clamp down on the timber mafia and illegal logging, he said.

But Afridi insists the international community needs to chip in with the necessary funding support.

"We are on track for the forest policy," said Afridi. "As far as the road map is concerned, that is properly done. But still we are short of some finances." Afridi says his government will look to sources like the World Bank and U.N. agencies to provide financial and technical support for environmental controls.

Many Pakistani environmentalists urge donors not to turn from the meteorological evidence that suggests climate change is a major factor in this year's devastation.

Hafiz Ehsan Qazi, an environmental specialist who advises Pakistani nonprofit groups, acknowledges his government and society's culpability in the disaster. But that shouldn't leave the rich world off the hook, he said.

"We must not forget that the global changes, global warming, is at a very alarming stage and something should be done," said Qazi. "In this global warming, unfortunately, Pakistan has not contributed much ... but the effect is on Pakistan."

More immediately, regular Pakistanis hit hard by the floods simply want the world to help them get their lives back to normal. Kiran, and 8-year-old forced into a camp from her home in Nawan Killi, near Mardan, says the misery and monotony of waiting for help is becoming unbearable.

"Each morning starts with stress: No water, OK, go find water after mom thrusts few containers in my hands. So off we go in search to get some water," Kiran said. "I am fed up of this routine since two months now. I feel like I want to run away from this nightmare."

Saadia Haq contributed to this report.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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