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Special Report:
Flood Crisis

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Out of the box solution for controlling floods

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By Ahmad Fraz Khan


Did planners in the water and power ministry, Wapda, FFC and Irsa fail to act jointly to lower dams’ level on time and better regulate flood waters, especially when the meteorological department had delivered repeated warnings?

Or, their working, being independent of each other, made them stick to their standard operating procedures (SOPs), unable to see emerging larger national picture and take some “daring measure to avoid national disaster.”

The debate is getting louder by the day; at least in circles familiar with hydrology of rivers and dams operations. Though all these departments defend their role citing their individual SOPs, but statistical realities emerging out of water flows, dams’
levels and the meteorological forecasts do point out failures – risking some out-of-the-box solution – on their part.

According to Wapda’s record, when flood forecasts of the meteorological department started assuming shape in the week of July, both dams (on 25-07-10) had substantial 8.69 million acre feet (MAF) water – 4.3maf in Tarbella Lake, 4.19maf in
Mangla Dam and 0.11maf at Chashma. The critical question being debated among water experts is whether the dams’ levels should have been lowered through controlled releases to better accommodate water peaks later and lessen the intensity
of national disaster.
 

 

The opinion is sharply divided, with officials of all government departments (the ministry of water and power, Wapda, federal flood commissioner and Irsa) saying that it was the best they could do because their “procedures are too strict to allow
any space.”

They, however, agree that “political leadership (guided and led by the ministry of water and power) could have taken such a decision.” It is because if they had released water on their own and the Met forecasts did not turn out to be true, they
could have been on the chopping block. It was for the federal government to take such initiative, which, unfortunately, woke up too late to the reality, and then panicked. The ministry, on its part, refused to become “umbrella body,” involving all the
institutions and evolve consensus. Instead, it left all organisations under it to work “independently, thus pre-empting even possibility, leave alone probability, of such a decision.”

Chaudhry Mazhar Ali, an eminent expert on water issues, thinks that it was perfectly possible had these planners been alive to their national duty. “They should have lowered the dams’ level to create additional capacity in both them,” he says. It
was almost the repeated 1992 tragedy at Mangla, when these planners waited till last momentum, let the dam overflow and released all water down stream. It is a national tragedy that we keep on making the same mistakes over and over again,
refusing to learn from the past. The attitude is not restricted to water sector alone; we do exactly the same in other fields as well, he said.

To make the matter worse, there is no individual or institution that is “trustworthy as far as water sector is concerned. Politics has taken better of everybody and no one ready to trust others. In such a miasma, it is hardly a matter of surprise if
they worked independent of each other. To top it all, we have created a system where no one would be able to pin point any person and institution that should have taken such a decision,” he lamented.

Common sense does create an impression that dams’ level should have been lowered when warnings were sounded and water flows started reflecting those warnings, says Mr Shams-ul-Mulk – ex-chairman Wapda. But trouble is that once floods
start knocking at the door, it becomes very hard for operator to play with standard dam filling criterion. It can endanger dam safety and spell much bigger disaster. That’s why the Wapda people went by the book, and avoided risks of unknown, he
said.

But Wapda, the dams’ operator contest, “did the best possible job – even at the risk of dam (Tarbella) safety.” Syed Raghib Abbas, member (water) of Wapda, who is directly in-charge of dams’ filling, says that once the Tarbella level hits 1,510
feet, the inviolable SOPs take over. One can only tinker with them at the risk of dam safety. Beyond 1,510 feet, the lake cannot be filled more than one foot a day. Any additional water thus has to be released downstream. The Wapda, however,
filled it by 6.9 feet during the night of July 28-29.

As far as Mangla dam, it could have filled by another 3.2 million acre feet but the AJK government did not allow it. Below 1,510 feet, it is the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) that directs about dams regulation, he insisted.

The Irsa, on its part, insists that meteorological forecasts came too late to allow emptying of the dams. They are not fully credible either. Who could have been responsible had the Met predictions fallen short? “Had the Irsa tried to release water
earlier, it could have generated floods much earlier,” says Khaled Rana, director operations of the authority. During July 24 to Aug 24, the system received 46maf water against average flow of 23maf. There was no way we could have dealt with
that kind of flow, which swelled by 100 per cent.

Zarar Aslam, Federal Flood Commissioner, also thinks on the same lines, as other officials of the government. “The commission is more of a coordinating body, and it kept informed every other institution – being it federal or provincial,” he says.

There were forecasts of rains and floods, but no one could guarantee that they would turn out to be true. The dams cannot be operated on assumptions. Both dams were operated without taking risks, and that what we are here for, he claimed and
insisted: “I am fully satisfied the way things have been handled by every one involved in the operations.”

The ministry, which everyone says should have led the effort and explore the possibility of releasing additional water with much more close scrutiny, did not have any meeting during the floods. In response to a questionnaire about ministerial
preparations to deal with floods, its spokesman Nasir Jamal says that “the repeated warnings of flood from Met office during the last week of July were never ignored.”

“Factually, a pre-flood meeting was held on June 10 at the GHQ attended by the FFC, NDMA and Commanders of concerned Army formations. Fourth pre-monsoon meeting of the NDMA was held on June 28 and third one was held on June 21 by
the Met department under the ministry of defence.”

Interestingly, all the three meetings were held in June, whereas the floods hit the country in the last weak of July. None of the three meetings mentioned by the ministry as “preparatory” were held by it, but the army.

That is how the ministry managed the floods, leaving every institution on its own …which, in turn, did not risk any think not written on its books.



Courtesy: The DAWN

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