Explainer: Why the 2010 Indus floods hit Pakistan so hard

by
IDRC - International Development Research Centre

The July 2010 flooding of the Indus River Basin was one of the most devastating natural disasters in recorded history. Researchers are working with communities to help reduce their vulnerability to future extreme weather events.

Research focus

To understand the underlying causes of Pakistan’s 2010 flooding and its impact on marginalized communities in the Indus Basin, and to identify strategies to reduce their vulnerability.

The challenge

In July 2010, unusually heavy monsoon rains in Pakistan's Indus River Basin swelled waterways, swamping adjacent communities. Twenty million people were affected as homes, livelihoods, and infrastructure were wiped out, access to food and clean water were cut off, and transportation, energy, and communication systems were disrupted. One-fifth of this largely agricultural country was submerged by the flood waters for weeks, and the World Bank estimated recovery costs at US$10 billion.

Pakistan’s Indus River Basin comprises the largest interconnected surface irrigation system in the world. It supports a mainly agricultural landscape of rice, wheat, maize, and other food crops grown for domestic consumption and export. Uncontrolled development has increased the environmental burden on the basin and exacerbated the impact on inhabitants of extreme weather events.

Flood relief efforts were undermined by ongoing political instability and poor governance. In the aftermath, restoration efforts have focused on “building back as was,” rather than addressing social vulnerability.

A woman in Bhakou, one of hundreds of villages ravaged by the flooding, voiced the dilemma that many Pakistanis face: “We build houses and the rains continue to destroy them. We fail to understand what to do. Please tell us what to do.”

The research

In 2011, the Institute of Social and Environmental Transition (ISET) and its Pakistani affiliate (ISET-Pk) initiated an 18-month scoping study, with funding from IDRC, to examine the 2010 flooding from an economic and social perspective. The project aims to identify the key players in the Indus Basin, and to assess their relief and reconstruction efforts. Together with local research partners in the Rural Support Programs Network (RSPN), the project will also examine factors that determine vulnerability to such extreme weather events.  

In the first phase of the project, researchers reviewed numerous situation reports, media articles, and other literature to prepare a synthesis report and extensive bibliography. They assessed factors contributing to the floods and the ability of various organizations, government, donor agencies, and civil society to respond. They also mapped relief and reconstruction efforts, and compiled a series of lessons learned from other ISET projects on climate change adaptation in the region.

In the second stage, researchers from ISET-Pakistan and RSPN partners are visiting Indus Basin communities to understand factors affecting their vulnerability. The team has selected four study sites across the basin, from the upper reaches of the Indus in Chitral down to the deltaic plains in Sindh (red dots on the map indicate the study sites). Two villages were chosen within each site, and 40 households in each village were invited to take part in the first round of shared learning dialogues. The participants were divided into two groups — those who had recovered well from the flooding and those who had not. Separate group meetings with women were also convened to understand the gender-related factors that influenced coping and recovery strategies for women and men.   

This fieldwork phase of the project has encountered several delays. A second round of flooding in the Indus Basin in 2011 required the assistance of RSPN partners in flood relief and restoration efforts. Other challenges included time spent on building field staff expertise as well as the ongoing security situation in Pakistan, which often constrained access to the field.

Emerging results

Although the July 2010 rains were unprecedented, emerging results suggest that the flooding was caused by a combination of factors. Unplanned and uncontrolled development, particularly of irrigation and drainage structures in the flood zone, and the consequent lack of space for water flows, were among the prime reasons. Irrigation management and flood control is defined by power relationships: in order to save cities and villages with strong political connections, canals and embankments were deliberately breached by powerful landowners and irrigation authorities, thus causing inundation downstream.

In addition, there were a number of problems with the institutional mechanisms for the delivery of relief—multiple organizations with little coordination. Devolution of governance from federal to provincial levels under the 18th constitutional amendment in Pakistan is also problematic as there is little technical or financial capacity to manage. Local elections have not been held since 2000, and local government systems are often redundant.

Not surprisingly, several fundamentalist groups were involved in relief efforts, reaching areas where no government supplies did, and often leading to further social and political tensions.

Vulnerability assessments are showing that households with six or fewer members and access to diversified incomes, assets, and services (safe housing, energy, water and food, transport and communication) were better able to cope with the floods. These are just some of the core “gateway systems” that help vulnerable communities build their adaptive capacity. Others include access to healthcare, finance (social safety nets), education, off-farm employment opportunities, and social networks.  

One villager participating in the learning dialogues gave his assessment of vulnerability as: “Those who have waseela (a means of support) behind them manage to get their house rebuilt. Those without waseela remain shelterless.”

Although this scoping project will not be completed until late 2012, the results already show possibilities for further research. In fall 2011, IDRC organized a closed call for research proposals on climate change adaptation, water, and food security in Pakistan. Three new projects involving some of the leading economic and social development policy institutes in the country will be launched shortly.