COMMENT: Between man and nature —Usman Shami
Many term the calamity as God’s way of expressing displeasure with the inhabitants of this land, but maybe in it is hidden an opportunity for this nation to unite. Our leaders should put aside their political ego and resort to more logical positions on the water issues in the country
During the course of history, mankind’s development in various disciplines of life has been astonishing. The human race has grown from milestone to milestone with an ever-increasing pace of development. Advancements in available tools and technologies have assured development of more reliable infrastructure and better than ever living standards.
Human development and population growth have also intensified the battle between man and nature. Higher population densities and more investments in infrastructure facilities mean larger quantity of monetary and human capital exposed to natural calamities.
Through the years, rivers have provided dwellers with rich soil, irrigation water, and convenient transportation. However, they also carry the potential to occasionally wash out the surrounding settlements. Several countries, from time to time, have experienced the wrath of overflowing rivers. Unusual climatic conditions, excessive rainfall, etc, may cause this.
According to UN figures, over 90 percent of the total number of people affected by natural disasters live in Asia. This pattern is primarily due to the high population density of the region. China, since 206 BC, has — on average — experienced a major flood once every two years, and four out of the ten most terrible floods in history have occurred in China. The Yellow River in China has been responsible for one of the most catastrophic floods in the world’s history. Its impact is such that some refer to it as ‘China’s Sorrow’. In ancient China it was believed ‘whoever controls the Yellow River controls China’. The river overflowed in 1933 affecting around 3.6 million people and killing more than eighteen thousand. Known as ‘Hwang Ho’ in Chinese, the river is responsible for the most catastrophic flood known to mankind. In 1887, floods caused by it claimed around 900,000 lives. Similarly, the Yangtze — China’s longest river — and Heilong River have been the cause of some of the deadliest floods in human history. In order to tackle threats posed by their geographic landscape, the Chinese have constantly been involved in efforts aimed at controlling the flow and direction of their waterways. In order to avoid such calamities, over 84,000 large, medium and small reservoirs have been built in the country with a storage capacity of over 474 billion cubic metres.
Today, the Yellow River Basin grows more than 50 percent of China’s wheat, cotton, and tobacco. The Chinese seem to have controlled the river through countless reservoirs built along its path. Just the Xiaolangdi Multipurpose Dam on the Yellow River has a storage capacity of 12.65 billion cubic metres. The efforts to control the Yellow River seem to have paid off, as there has not been a serious flood in the Yellow River during the last 50 years. However, despite all these efforts, it is still believed that a flood similar in intensity to that of 1887 could be catastrophic.
The West equally knows the wrath of disturbed rivers. The Mississippi River, one of the major rivers of America, starts from Northern Minnesota and flows around 2,400 miles south into the Gulf of Mexico. Flooding is not an alien concept in this part of the world either. A flood in the Mississippi Valley in 1937 caused more than 1,100 deaths and left around 600,000 people homeless. As a result, the US Army was given the task of implementing measures to control the river. Army engineers built one of the longest systems of levees in the world, thus considerably taming the river. Around 29 reservoirs and dams were also built on the river. However, in 1993 the Mississippi River caused havoc again as it flooded over 6.6 million acres of land; damage caused was estimated at around $ 15-20 billion. The flood caused widescale destruction but it had the potential to cause more damage if the dams and reservoirs had not displayed the resistance they did. In the post-flood period, the US government and private volunteers acquired frequently flooded agriculture lands, which now serve as flood storage areas.
Pakistan’s Indus River also has a history characterised by frequent flooding. Until recently, the floods of 1973 and 1992 were the severest experienced by the Indus Basin in recent times. In 1973, the overflowing of the Indus caused more than 500 deaths. In the floods of 1992, the death toll was estimated to be more than 1,000. The current floods in Pakistan are another glimpse of nature unleashing its wrath upon mankind. According to weather reports, unusual air pressure caused by climatic changes have exacerbated the monsoon rainfalls in the northern regions of the country. These abnormally high levels of rainfalls have caused both the Kabul and Indus Rivers to overflow, which is an unprecedented occurrence, resulting in destruction of the Indus plains. Damages are estimated to be around Rs 300 billion, an amount quite close to the cumulative damages of around Rs 385 billion caused by 14 floods since 1956. The effects of the destruction caused by the flood are far reaching; according to estimates more than 17 million acres of agricultural land has been affected and around 1.1 million people rendered homeless. At least 1,600 people have lost their lives in the disaster, and that number is expected to aggravate in the coming days.
The ongoing flood is the most catastrophic of natural calamities experienced by the occupants of the Indus Basin. On one side, the failure to predict the magnitude of the calamity has exposed the nation’s inadequate weather prediction mechanisms, whereas on the other, the below par relief activities have pointed out the lack of communication between different arms of the government.
Over the years, different governments have overlooked the need to build the country’s water storage capacity. Whether dams like the Kalabagh would have been able to completely control the current wave of floods is a debateable issue. What is quite clear is that their existence would have enabled us to preserve the water from current rainfalls for use in the coming years. Tarbela Dam absorbed around 4 million-acre feet of floodwater, thus considerably taming the water flow at Sukkur Barrage, which, according to experts, might not have been able to survive the wave otherwise.
Many term the calamity as God’s way of expressing displeasure with the inhabitants of this land, but maybe in it is hidden an opportunity for this nation to unite. Our leaders should put aside their political ego and resort to more logical positions on the water issues in the country. In the battle between man and nature, the latter has proved its supremacy every time. However, the worst losers are men who do not even bother to prepare. Lack of political will for developing our water storage capacity is unfortunate; more unfortunate would be to ignore it even in the future. It is up to the nation to learn the lesson that this calamity is offering.
The writer is a graduate of Institute of Business Administration, Karachi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org