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Pakistanis, natural calamities

We, as a nation, have a remarkable quality to stand up like an iron wall when struck with any type of calamity but as soon as the heat subsides we again revert back into slumber mode as if nothing ever happened. The likes of this characteristic was witnessed during the October 2005 earthquake and the recent floods in 2010. On both these occasions, people’s reaction was swift, appreciable and exemplary — the government as usual was unprepared and suffering from lethargy. Generosity, compassion, benevolence and eagerness to ease the suffering of the affected were at full display and no stone remained unturned for alleviating the pain and misery. Aid poured in from both national and international sources and all efforts were geared up to rescue and evacuate those who were pushed into precarious circumstances. With the gruesome effects of these calamities settling down, we notice how everybody — including the government — conveniently forgot the terrible moments of disaster until it struck again in 2011.

The 2010 floods should have proved to be an eye opener for those in command. No doubt, it is impossible to fight Mother Nature yet we have clear instances of efforts made by many countries to harness rivers in order to prevent flooding. China, India, UK, the Netherlands, Italy and the USA are some of the countries where tremendous work has been done in this respect. However, as far as Pakistan is concerned there is no plan, not even any talk or debate about devising methods for curbing devastation in case of future floods. They say that when in doubt seek knowledge from those who know. We wish the government would tell the public if consultants have been invited to advise about this issue. How come we quickly call in experts from the World Bank or IMF when in need of funds to cater for wasteful expenses but fail to obtain proposals for the betterment of the country and its people?

The problem in sorting out these matters has nothing to do with meagre resources. Actually, there is a complete lack of will to efficiently manage affairs of the State whereby long-term targets are fixed and work is carried on irrespective of which government initiated those plans. Thus projects in Pakistan are attributed to a person rather than becoming a national obligation causing not only much inconvenience but also resulting in heavy losses in terms of money and labour. Likes and dislikes play pivotal role in assignment of work. Merit, expertise, acumen and sincerity are terms used only to garnish applications but the true story behind most contracts is fraught with kickbacks, corruption, leg-pulling, conspiracies and nepotism.

If sanity prevails, perhaps a few at the helm of affairs might initiate some concrete plans to manage Pakistan’s water system. It is about time that we stop playing the blame game with our neighbours and move towards far reaching and efficient solutions to get full control over our precious natural resource, mercilessly neglected by most governments, until it unleashes its terror in the form of floods destroying property and lives.

Today, there are many ways to help prevent and control floods. Flood-control dams can be constructed across rivers. Dykes and levees are built alongside rivers to keep them from overflowing during periods of high water. Canals are also used to help drain off extra water. Prevention of soil erosion also helps control flooding, which is why lots of trees need to be planted along the waterways, slopes be treated, and reservoirs created to catch sediment and debris. Besides, it is important to increase the depth of the river beds so that they can accommodate heavy inflow of water. This could easily be done during the dry season when the rivers hardly carry water. In addition to bearing voluminous inflow, these waterways can also be used to transport people and cargo.

These suggestions may sound amateurish but the fact remains that we need a starting point. After all, it took the Dutch almost 50 years to complete the Delta Works, their answer to restraining the sea (not rivers) from flooding the country. The Delta Works are a series of constructions built between 1950 and 1997 (officially the project was completed on 24 August, 2010) in the southwest of the Netherlands to protect a large area of land around the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta from the sea. The works consist of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levies, and storm surge barriers. The aim of the dams, sluices and storm surge barriers was to shorten the Dutch coastline, thus reducing the number of dykes that had to be raised.

In the UK, only 14 people died in the 1928 Thames flood, and when 307 people perished in the North Sea Flood of 1953, the government was prompted to seek proposals for a flood control system. The concept of the rotating gates was devised by Charles Draper. The barrier was designed by Rendel, Palmer and Tritton for the Greater London Council and tested at HR Wallingford Ltd. The site at Woolwich was chosen because of the relative straightness of the banks, and because the underlying river chalk was strong enough to support the barrier. Work began at the barrier site in 1974 and construction, which had been undertaken by a Costain/Hollandsche Beton Maatschappij/Tarmac Construction consortium, was largely complete by 1982. In addition to the barrier itself, the flood defences for 11 miles down-river were raised and strengthened.

Indeed, it is notable that only a few deaths inspired the UK government to spend a whopping £534 million to prevent the River Thames from taking innocent lives. Despite there being innumerable ministries and departments working under the federal and provincial governments, there appears none that has specifically been constituted to plan and develop effective flood control systems. Delta Works in the Netherlands was conducted under the supervision of the Ministry of Waterways and Public Works which indeed carried out a commendable feat.

In Pakistan, there are many governmental departments at both the federal and provincial levels that are merely white elephants on the public exchequer. To name a few, Ministry of Defence Production can be merged with Ministry of Defence; Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Social Welfare and Special Education, Ministry of Special Initiatives(sic) can all be merged with Ministry of Education; Ministry of Population Welfare, Ministry of Women Development, Ministry of Youth Affairs can all be brought under one, Ministry of Manpower. Ministries like Inter-Provincial Co-ordination and Overseas Pakistanis can easily be disbanded or merged with others as they seem to serve no purpose.

Instead of having a bunch of worthless and duplicate ministries in both the federal and provincial governments, a competent/efficient few could be more fruitful in managing the affairs of the State and combating perilous situations. Focus should be diverted to making best use of the abundance of natural wealth available to our beloved motherland and invest more on human resource that is capable of exploiting it. This is the only way to progress in order to make Pakistan a place worth living, rather than indulging in futile confrontations with political adversaries, mud-slinging, complaining and doing nothing.

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