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Pakistan floods aggravated by deforestation and other ecological mistakes

Human behavior has probably aggravated the scale of the devastation brought about by the floods in Pakistan. Pakistani environmentalists believe that there are important lessons to be learned.

Large areas in southern Sindh province have been flooded

Large areas in southern Sindh province have been flooded

The sheer scale of the current floods in Pakistan makes it difficult to talk about human responsibility, admits Saleem Ullah who works with the United Nations Development Program UNDP. "The intensity of the disaster was so much that the human role would be not more than something like twenty, thirty percent."

But this still makes a difference. To begin with, the human role extends to deforestation of the watersheds in the mountains in northern Pakistan. Although there are no exact figures, experts agree that rapid deforestation has taken place since the 1990s. It is estimated that only about five percent of the country are covered by forests now. Deforestation also had a rather direct impact when the rains came, says Rina Saeed Khan, a Pakistani journalist specializing on environmental issues.

"We are receiving reports that there was a lot of logging in the area done by the timber mafia, and they used to throw those logs in the river, using the river as a form of transportation. So when the floods came, the logs turned into missiles in the water. And they crashed into houses and into bridges, breaking a lot of infrastructure."

A family cut off by flood waters in Sindh province

A family cut off by flood waters in Sindh province

"Choking" the river

Further downstream, in Sindh province for example, the Indus River has been "choked" by farmers who did not leave any space where additional water could have gone, explains Khan.

"All along the Indus, in the south there used to be very thick riverine forest. And over the years, people have cut it down and they started crops, because it is very fertile land. This was government-owned land, but the government started giving it out on lease to landowners."

Satellite images of the Indus River in Sindh this summer (right) and last summer

Satellite images of the Indus River in Sindh this summer (right) and last summer

In the Indus delta, yet another problem surfaced: embankments had not been maintained in this region at all, because the Indus had run dry for almost the whole year usually, with all the water being used further upstream. "Below the Kotri Barrage, the river had really become almost like a puddle, it didn't go any further," says Khan. Now the whole delta, where previously salt water used to come in from the sea, has been flooded.

Lessons to learn

As climate experts believe extreme weather will be more common in future, environmentalists see a couple of lessons to be learned from the current disaster. Afforestation and more careful land use along the Indus are among the obvious ones. Khan adds that some people might also need to be resettled. "Places that were very close to the river maybe should not be rebuilt."

Experts also agree that disaster preparedness needs to be improved. Better warning systems will be needed to inform people further downstream in time about approaching flood waters.

And, says Saleem Ullah from UNDP, more small dams might also help to store some of the water for people to use it during the next drought which might come sooner than expected.

Author: Thomas Baerthlein
Editor: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

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