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Lessons from the Pakistan floods

Author: Martin Walsh

The monsoon floods of 2010 were the worst in Pakistan’s history. Nearly one-fifth of the country was inundated by floodwater and some 2 million homes were destroyed or damaged. Around 2,000 people were killed and more than 21 million people forced to flee the rising waters. The impacts on people’s health and livelihoods were devastating, and the cost to Pakistan’s economy ran into billions of dollars. Oxfam and other international agencies responded as best as they could to Pakistan’s plight, but humanitarian assistance was only able to provide partial relief from the consequences of a national crisis of unprecedented scale.

Subsequent floods, while not quite as cataclysmic as those of 2010, have added to the catalogue of Pakistan’s woes. No end to this cycle of annual disasters is in sight. The climate change that is likely contributing to increased rainfall in the Indus River catchment shows no sign of reversing, and under different scenarios flooding is likely to become worse and/or more frequent in the future. The patterns of river basin mismanagement and social inequality that render so many people vulnerable to flooding are no less entrenched, as is the political system that makes long-term recovery and reconstruction such an uncertain prospect.

Each fresh flood put millions of people at renewed risk of disease and widespread malnutrition, (c) Oxfam

Information flows faster than water

Despite this unpromising background, Oxfam has learned important lessons about the ways in which lives can be saved and livelihoods transformed in Pakistan – lessons that can also be applied in other disaster-prone environments. We know already, of course, that prevention is better than cure, that prediction and preparation are preferable to reaction and response. The challenge, however, is how best to prepare a country and its communities to counter and manage the risks that natural and other disasters present.

The Pakistan floods are an extreme case, but well-planned interventions can deliver surprisingly quick and effective results. When the 2010 floods struck, households in Punjab Province participating in Oxfam’s Community-based Disaster Risk Management and Livelihoods (CBDRML) Programme received an average of two days’ advance warning of the floods, which was twice as long as comparable households outside the programme. They therefore had more time to get ready and evacuate, and a subsequent evaluation showed they lost far less grain and far fewer livestock and other farming assets as a result. 

The programme had only been operating for 18 months, so how did households achieve this level of preparedness so quickly? An in-depth follow-up study found that Oxfam’s local partners, the Doaba Foundation and the Help Foundation, had bridged the gap between villagers and authorities when it came to early warning of flooding. Local people felt empowered to demand information from government authorities about river flows and levels, and in language they could understand.  Once received, the information was swiftly disseminated through the participating communities and people trusted the information enough to act on it.

As one villager in Muzaffargarh District told us: “As part of the project, we have learned about how to gain knowledge about water levels at various barrages that are directly in the flood pathway of our village. So first we call the barrage management of [one] headworks, then we call the barrage management of [another], at each place the officer in charge, whose phone numbers we now have thanks to the information shared through the district flood committee, informs us of the danger level of the water.”

In this way early warning information 'flowed faster than water', and communities were able to evacuate in good time. This success was achieved using tried and tested participatory methods, not any special technical fix, and is therefore an approach that can be readily reproduced elsewhere. 

Flood prevention in Afghanistan, (c) Todd Huffman - Creative Commons

Social transformation and long-term resilience

The CBDRML Programme saved people’s livelihoods, but did not transform their lives. More recent research by Oxfam has made it clear that deeply entrenched inequalities can determine the course of flooding and its impacts in a number of different ways. In some areas unscrupulous landlords have used flood protection programmes to safeguard their own land while deliberately allowing that of smallholders to be flooded. Some have used the erasure of boundaries and loss of deeds as a pretext for seizing the land of poorer neighbours. Others have forced their tenants to hand over the cash assistance they have received from government and NGOs. Most people who live in the rural areas affected by the floods are landless, and women are especially vulnerable in this regard.

Since the 2010 floods, Oxfam has called upon government, donors and other stakeholders to place land rights, especially for women, at the heart of reconstruction programmes in Pakistan, as a means of securing effective recovery and tackling the poverty that bedevils the country and exacerbates the disasters that befall it. The Oxfam country office has also recommended the systematic inclusion of disaster risk reduction (DRR) policies and plans in all development programmes in the country. These recommendations are consistent with Oxfam’s global call for “a new approach to risk and poverty reduction”, which recognises that the international community and its constituents can only build resilience effectively by challenging inequality. A lot of work remains to be done to achieve this in Pakistan, but we are more certain now of the road than we were before the disaster of 2010.

The author is Global Research Adviser at Oxfam GB

With special thanks to John Magrath for his inputs and for sharing extracts from the forthcoming report by Oxfam and the Environmental Change Institute in the University of Oxford