Floods and After

For a sustainable reconstruction of the physical and social infrastructure of flood ravaged Sindh, it is necessary to understand to what extent the damage caused by the flood is man-made. Some of the broad indicators are obvious.

Due to the construction of barrages and hundreds of kilometres of flood protection embankments the flood plains of the Indus have been considerably reduced. They can no longer cater to exceptionally high floods. As such, these flood waters are carried away by canals to considerable distances away from the flood plains. The canals in turn flood the colonised areas. An important question is whether the water carrying capacity of the flood plains can be increased and whether engineering works can reduce pressure on the canals in case of high floods? Preliminary discussions with engineers suggest that this is feasible.

Not only have the flood plains shrunk but shrub-lands and forests in them have been destroyed to make way for agriculture. This has increased the scale of flooding and the velocity of water. It has also made embankments more susceptible to erosion and collapse. In addition, settlements, some permanent and other semi-permanent, have developed in the flood plains, adding considerably to the vulnerable population.

In the colonised areas, over the last century, hundreds of kilometres of road and protection embankments have been built ten to twenty feet above the land level. Except for the major drainage channels there are no culverts and/or gates to let flood waters pass or return through them. If these culverts and gates existed at regular and appropriate intervals, flooding could be controlled and the breeching of these embankments and roads by the force of the water or by design, would not be necessary. Even in urban centres, large areas, especially low income ones, are submerged because they are surrounded by high roads and water from them cannot be drained out. This is especially true of the areas around Larkana, Sukkur and Shikarpur.

There are other issues as well. In search of land to cultivate, inundation and drainage channels and the natural depressions connected to them have been encroached upon for agricultural purposes and around towns for construction of homes and businesses. This is a major cause of flooding, especially in the urban areas, even during normal monsoons.

And then, there are other issues. Much of the post-1970’s infrastructure is substandard in quality. In addition, infrastructure, irrespective of its age has not been maintained. Canals, barrages and irrigation headworks have not been properly desilted for years. This is especially true of the minor drainage channels which are the backbone of any efficient drainage system. Most of them are covered with shrubbery preventing effective drainage of fields and agricultural areas.

In the reconstruction and rehabilitation phase, there are other issues that will surface as well. The floods have wiped out landmarks and the definition of fields and survey numbers. Re-establishing them is a major exercise and is bound to lead to disputes and conflicts. During the initial phase of reconstruction of homes and properties, similar disputes will also arise. In this process the worst affected will be the tenant farmers and the poorer sections of the population. The principles on the basis of which of these disputes are to be settled need to be clearly and simply articulated. The institutions that are to settle these disputes will also have to be established at taluka level. It is not possible for people to visit the taluka headquarters for the settlement of these disputes. Therefore, mobile teams will have to camp at different locations and invite applications for the resolution of property related conflicts. If justice cannot be delivered through a transparent, uncomplicated and swift process, then power and production related relations will be further strengthened in favour of the more powerful sections of society.

The rehabilitation of major infrastructure (roads, bridges, electricity, water supply, sewage) and the desilting process required for it, will be taken care of by the state agencies through contractors and consultancy firms. The manner in which it will be done is clear and the local population can be mobilised for this work through a cash or food for work programme. Our bureaucracy is well aware of how such programmes are organised and managed. However, it will be necessary to develop appropriate specifications and concepts for the design, maintenance and operation of all major infrastructure items so that they can withstand the scale of flooding that we have experienced. Also, the institutions that develop and manage infrastructure will have to be strengthened, and on the basis of an evaluation of the problems they face, their constraints will have to be removed.

At the local level, rehabilitation work can be managed by local communities provided they are supported by sound technical advice and managerial guidance by local government (where it exists) and NGOs and professional organisations. For home construction and restoration, it is necessary that building materials are easily available and that their prices are kept under strict control. The profiteering and exploitation around the supply of building materials that was experienced in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake should not be allowed to take place. In addition, improved methods and technologies related to mud construction need to be introduced as mud will remain the cheapest and by far the most easily available material.

The above is doable and there is a lot of experience available in the country for doing it. It needs to be accessed and organised. However, the most important issue is related to livelihoods. It is doubtful if there will be a khareef crop in Sindh this year. For making the next crop possible, cash is required for inputs and for surviving from sowing to harvesting. In addition, livestock has to be fed and looked after. This is perhaps our greatest challenge and this is the concern of many of the IDPs in Karachi. Discussions with them suggest that many of the tenant farmers and landless labour are seriously considering staying on in Karachi and looking for jobs. Small farmers would like to go back but think that by leaving a member in Karachi they will receive some financial support to rebuild their lives in their villages and small towns. A new relationship between the capital of Sindh and the people of its hinterland is in the process of being established. It should be welcomed and supported.

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