VIEW: Water, water everywhere —Abdul Jalil Khan, —Dr Ali Madeeh Hashmi - Saturday, November 20, 2010

Source :\11\20\story_20-11-2010_pg3_5

With continued global warming, snow melts from our northern and western mountain ranges will continue to increase each year. Conserving this water for human consumption, irrigation and other uses is vital since our snow caps are expected to shrink significantly in the next 20-30 years

“The race is not always to the swift, but to those who keep on running” — Author unknown.

The water is finally beginning to recede and as the people on the banks of the Indus try to rebuild their shattered lives, some hard questions need to be asked. Instead of the usual political name calling, a better discussion would be to examine what the geographical reasons were that these floods happened. What can we learn from this disaster and what can we do about it in the future?

In our part of the world, ‘snow melt’ in the spring, from the Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountains, feeds our rivers. This year, unusually heavy rainfall in a very short time (e.g. 300 mm in 24 hours in Peshawar, which usually receives an average of 250 mm from July till September) swelled the rivers to bursting. Normally, moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean Sea brings some precipitation in Pakistan’s western mountain ranges usually in the form of snow in the winter. This year, there was above normal rain in July and August on those ranges, which is very unusual. No one knows the exact causes for the change in these weather patterns but one reason could be the cyclical weather pattern known as El Niño/La Niña-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO causes extreme weather such as floods, droughts and other weather disturbances in many regions of the world. In addition, even though the exact climatic effects of global warming are still being debated, it is now well known that human industrial activity is contributing to it and that this will, in the future, lead to more frequent and more extreme weather events, including unusually heavy rainfall. While the effects of global warming are hard to predict from year to year, ENSO effects can be studied and taken into account when forecasting weather. In addition, the annual snow melt from our mountains is something that can be measured and predicted accurately from year to year. The point being, of course, that with appropriate surveillance, the severity of this year’s floods was quite predictable.

The Swat River was in heavy flood this year and its water discharge was twice its normal annual flow for this time of the year. There were a number of buildings including houses and hotels built on its banks in violation of elementary principles of flood control. This was done, presumably, since ‘river view’ is a tourist attraction in good times. All these structures were washed away or severely damaged when the water eroded the river banks.

Further south, floods in Punjab happen because of the usual snow melt from March to June and monsoon rains in July and August in our eastern rivers including the Chenab. The path of the monsoons is east to west from the Bay of Bengal to the Himalayas. These reach Pakistan starting in July and last till September. This year saw heavy rains in the Hindu Kush Mountains, which is unusual. In addition, our western mountain ranges, including the Sulaiman Range and the Kirthar Range, are rocky and barren since they receive little or no rainfall. In the case of an unusual weather event like this year, there is no vegetation on those mountains to slow down the torrents of rainwater that collect in the foothills and plains leading very rapidly to flash flooding.

There are no major dams in the Hindu Kush or on the River Swat, though they are desperately needed for just such eventualities. The Warsak Dam on the River Kabul is old, filled with silt (sediment from rain water) and in disrepair. The only dam on the Indus, our biggest river, is the Tarbela Dam.

The western mountains, too, need a series of small dams as well as increased vegetation to control the aforementioned hill torrents, which can be accomplished by planting drought resistant plants.

If we continue to hide our heads in the sand and pretend that praying to the Almighty is our only option, we can expect continued, massive flooding in the future with the resultant damage to vital, already weak infrastructure in addition to loss of lives, crops and livestock.

With continued global warming, snow melts from our northern and western mountain ranges will continue to increase each year. Conserving this water for human consumption, irrigation and other uses is vital since our snow caps, the source of most of our fresh water, are expected to shrink significantly in the next 20-30 years. In addition, it would be comical if it were not so tragic that one month our provincial governments were at each other’s throats for ‘stealing’ each others’ water and the next month were blaming each other for flooding?

There is no excuse for wasting water, our most precious natural resource. It is now well established that with the rising population of the world, water, not oil, is set to become the planet’s most precious commodity. More dams will also solve our most pressing problem: shortage of electricity. Hydroelectric power is a clean, environmentally friendly source of energy, vitally needed for the development of industry.

The ordinary people of Pakistan have time and time again shown their resilience by fighting back against disasters, both natural and manmade. While trying to put things right with Pakistan may seem like the curse of Sisyphus, the Greek king damned for eternity to perform a task that can never be finished, we have no choice but to keep trying. In addition, it is time for our ‘leaders’ and politicians to join us in this national challenge instead of standing in our way.

Mr Khan has taught Geography in Lahore for over twenty years. Dr Hashmi is a psychiatrist practicing in Lahore. The authors can be reached at

No comments:

Post a Comment