Logic is Variable

an argument starts here

Cycle of vulnerabilities

This article appeared in daily the Nation

When rivers were raging and floodwater was submerging more areas down the country, I was in my village situated in the beautiful basin (called Bela) of River Jhelum about three kilometers downstream from Rasul Barrage. Most of the green swathe in Bela, where I remember looking for ladybirds as my earliest memories in life, is under flood water. Our location makes us vulnerable to floods more than anyone else.

People living in basin areas are familiar with floods that usually occur in late summer (July to September) when the Subcontinent gets heavy monsoon rains. In the upper to mid reaches of the Basin, it is generally the tributaries like Jhelum and Chenab rivers, which are the cause of flooding rather than the Indus River itself. The monsoon low depression that causes intense rain develops either in the Arabian Sea or the Bay of Bengal. Major flooding is generally associated with the depression from the bay of Bengal moving across India in west/north‐westerly direction and then turning north at the border with Pakistan.

Indus river basin, one of the largest river basins in Asia, covers approximately 70 percent of the country’s area. The largest river in the Basin is the Indus River with Chenab, Jhelum, Kabul, Ravi and Sutlaj rivers as its major tributaries.

Pakistan flood 2010, “probably the biggest emergency on the planet today,'' as UNICEF rightly puts it, has placed most of the Basin areas under water, killing many and displacing and destroying the livelihoods of millions. Flood also contains the germ of many others issues like starvation, epidemics, climate change, and violence, to name just a few. This suffering manifests itself in ways that raw statistics just cannot measure.

As always in floods of this magnitude, it is people living along rivers banks and in the foot of hills who are vulnerable and tend to suffer the most – both in the immediate disaster and in the long, uncertain aftermath. It is in this milieu that I talked to the spirited people in Bela of River Jhelum and tried to look into their fears and aspirations.

The influence of the development process on vulnerability to disasters is now well established. Lack of proper infrastructure and having no choices increases vulnerability of people to disasters. Those who are not on the priority list - if there is any list in the first place - of the governments and or are already at an economic disadvantage tend to be more likely to suffer during disasters like current floods. And it is not just due to poverty. “We are locked in a cycle of vulnerability simply because we happen to be living in Bela. Because we are vulnerable, we are at great risk in the face of a natural hazard like current floods. Because we suffer greater losses from a flood, we become even poorer, more vulnerable, and are at an even greater risk of another flood next year,” says Tassadaq Abbas, a contractor who do a business of excavating sand from Bela area and taking it to nearby towns. No one has ever bothered to visit us what to talk of taking any protective measures against floods and doing anything for us. We are at our own and think that there is no government for us,” Tassadaq, whose sand business is closed for many months even after waters recedes, adds.

All the evidence points to a steep and continuing rise in loss of lives and properties from floods since the 1950s and there is general consensus among trend watcher and experts that the frequency and magnitude of floods disasters is on the rise. The rise increases people’s vulnerability. What is more, economic and political environment of the country makes people even more vulnerable. This is most apparent in the economic pressures that force many of the poor to live in cheap but dangerous locations such as basins, even flood plains and unstable hillsides but there are many less visible underlying factors – social and political as well as economic – that affect people’s ability to protect themselves against disasters or to recover from them.

Mahmood Raja, my former class fellow and now a progressive farmer on the River Jhelum bank says, “Earlier floods used to be a yearly phenomenon in Bela. Flooding stopped after the construction of Mangla Dam upstream on River Jhelum and diversion of River Jhelum water to River Chenab (through Rasul-Qadarabad Link Canal). But in 1992, everything we had built was washed away. Now again the water has taken away everything we had.” Blame it on climate change, poor infrastructure, and lack of early warning system or in general lack of any proper disaster management system in the country, Mahmood, who has lost a prize winning bull in addition to ready for market maze fodder crop on the first when River Jhelum swelled out of its banks this year, and all those who are living in river basins are once again vulnerable to floods every year.

Flood 2010 has wiped out the asset base of people living in basins and they face a future where they have to re-build homes, clear debris covered land, re-equip agri businesses and add livestock and more. Given the estimates, anyone can see that the country is likely to lose at least this year's production, and may see food production levels lowered for the next few years because of the combined effects of soil erosion, destroyed irrigation systems, and contaminated soil. “New cycle of vulnerability has just started,” says Tassadaq.

In addition to the loss of life and property and the challenges, the current flood is testing the resilience and capacity of Pakistan and its people to overcome catastrophes. Nadir, another farmer from village Khewa, further downstream on the bank of River Jhelum, who lives and works closer to the River bank says, “It is difficult to move lock stock and barrel after we get fresh warning. Where can we take our live stocks and how can we feed them away from own land,” says nadir who, these days, keeps his important household on a tractor trolley in ready to move position. “So far the water has stayed 500 meters away from my home. We try to hold till the last moment but we have to move in case the situation worsens,” adds Nadir. 

The situation gets worst when the nations don’t have a capacity to withstand disasters (material and human resources that aid in the prevention and effective response to disasters). This includes the resources and skills people possess, can develop, mobilize or have access to which allow them to have more control over shaping their future. It is the ability of the nation to deal with hazards effectively. 

More rain and more floods may be on the way. But when the floodwaters retreat to the river beds, what is next for people living in river basins of Pakistan? It is hard to identify but one thing is sure; we need to build capacities to get people out of circle of vulnerability.

Related: Flood 2010

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posted by S A J Shirazi @ 10:45 PM,


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