Taming the deluge

PAKISTAN floodsBy S. M. Hali

Pakistan’s bread basket, the province of Punjab, is currently being challenged by a deluge of biblical proportions. Dykes have been dynamited to save urban population centers. Crops over 400,000 acres have been destroyed, over 300 villages are inundated.

Pakistan has been facing colossal devastation through floods. This year, in the backdrop of terror attacks, incessant power outages, weakened economy and backlash of political uncertainty in Islamabad, the nation is stunned by the catastrophe.

The question is whether the floods could have been controlled?

Following the partition of the Indian Sub-Continent in 1947, being a lower riparian state, Pakistan had taken cognizance of the scarce water resources, whose control lay with India. Creditably, after a decade of protracted negotiation facilitated by the World Bank, Pakistan and India signed the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960 for distribution of water resources in the Indus Basin, which gave India the exclusive use of the waters of the eastern rivers Ravi, Sutlej and Beas. Pakistan was allocated only 75 percent of its legitimate share of the waters in Indus Basin. Consequently, Pakistan agreed to embark upon a gigantic project “Indus Basin Replacement Works”, which involved the construction of two major dams, five barrages and eight link canals.

The system worked well for the era of sixties and seventies but necessitated the construction of more dams, reservoirs and building an efficient system of affluent disposal for the irrigation system which was dependent on river water supplies to remain sustainable. Few dams of consequence were constructed after Mangla and Tarbela. The lack of an affluent disposal system gave rise to the twin problems of water logging and salinity while the absence of barrages, large reservoirs and water storage facilities compounded the problem. Hydel power could have catered for Pakistan’s rising energy needs, reservoirs and an effective irrigation system would have ensured adequate distribution of the water as well as effective flood control.

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Meanwhile, India constructed 3,200 dams and controls the jugular of Pakistan that it can stop the flow of water when it is required for irrigation and release excess waters during torrential rains, aggravating the flooding.

Subsequent Pakistani governments have not only been criminally negligent in addressing the core issue of water, energy and food, which is the lifeline of nations but have allowed politics to hamper with sensible decision making. Remaining oblivious of Indian construction plans and not taking adequate measures this side of the divide for optimum utilization of the scarce water resource continues to cause immense destruction and damage, which could have been avoidable.

Last week this scribe had the opportunity to visit Dujiangyan irrigation infrastructure built in 256 BC. The Min River, a 735-kilometer-long tributary of the Yangtze River in central China’s Sichuan province, used to wreak havoc with seasonal floods. Li Bing, the Qin governor, tasked to address the problem, discovered that the river was swelled by fast flowing spring melt-water from the local mountains that burst the banks when it reached the slow moving and heavily silted stretch below. Instead of damming the river and making it un-navigable, Li Bing constructed an artificial levee to redirect a portion of the river’s flow and then cut a channel through Mount Yulei to discharge the excess water upon the dry Chengdu plain to turn it into a fertile tract of land. The remarkable aspect is that in the absence of explosives (which were yet to be invented), to cut through the mountain and lack of building material to build the levee two thousand twenty six years earlier, the project was successfully completed. It stopped further flooding, is still irrigating over 5,300 square kilometers of land in the region and has turned Sichuan into the most productive agricultural province of China.

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As part of its silent diplomacy, on the eve of the visit of President Xi Jinping to Pakistan, Chinese government had invited a group of senior journalists to visit this marvel of ancient but effective hydraulic engineering project which transformed the lives of the people. The message is clear that China, being a time tested friend of Pakistan is keen to share its expertise in the construction of dams, among other skills. China has over 80,000 reservoirs in the country and over 4,800 dams completed or under construction that stand at or exceed 30 m in height. It is also the world’s leader in the construction of large dams; followed by Turkey, and Japan—a distant third.

Decision makers in Pakistan have let the opportunity of the historic visit to slip due to political wrangling. The Chinese President’s visit may be reprogrammed as China is an all weather friend but we should realize that learning from Chinese experience, taming the deluge ASAP will save lives, resolve water and energy issues, mitigate drought, enhance tourism potential and boost the quality of life of average Pakistanis.

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