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Floods have halved Pakistan's economic growth - expert

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 9 Sep 2013 03:00 PM
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Farmer Khan Bacha, 72, looks at the Kabul River in Pakistan, where floods washed away his once sprawling fruit orchards. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Aamir Saeed
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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Three years of repeated floods have inflicted serious damage on Pakistan’s economy, halving its potential economic growth, an expert says.

“The impact of floods on Pakistan’s economy is colossal as the economy grew on average at a rate of 2.9 percent per year during the last three years,” said Ishrat Husain, an economist and director of the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi.

That is less than half the 6.5 percent that Pakistan could potentially have managed if it weren’t facing the economic and human losses associated with the flooding, Husain said.

Flooding is hardly the only impediment to economic growth in the troubled South Asian country. Worsening power shortages, “a poor law and order situation and a host of other structural impediments” also are holding back investment and growth, Husain said.

But extreme weather presents an especially worrying economic challenge, he said, because the country can work to reduce its energy crisis and improve law in order, but has limited scope to avert natural calamities, other than trying to devise effective mechanisms to minimise its losses.

The Pakistan Economic Survey shows that Pakistan lost a total of 3,072 lives and $16 billion to the floods in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

As of early September, a rough estimate made by National Disaster Management Authority about the floods’ impact shows agriculture sector losses at $2 billion due to damages to 1.05 million acres of standing crops.

He said consecutive years of flooding has also pushed up the country’s inflation and unemployment rate as it has disrupted supply chains, damaged major crops like sugarcane, rice and cotton, and hampered industrial production.

The rising frequency of floods in Pakistan suggests there is a need to take disaster risk reduction measures to minimise the economic and human losses, Husain said.

THREE KEY STEPS

Pervaiz Amir, a former member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change and an environmental expert, suggested three steps to minimise the losses caused by natural disasters. First, he said, Pakistan should build new reservoirs, barrages and dams to store excess water during floods.

“This would not only reduce economic losses but also help produce cheap electricity,” if it is channeled through hydropower generators, he said.

Pakistan at the moment receives around 144 million acre feet of water from different sources but its storage capacity is only 12.6 million acre feet, he said.

Second, Pakistan should heavily invest in flood forecasting and early warning systems, Amir said.

“We cannot avert floods but (we can) reduce human and economic losses if we know about the calamity in advance,” he said. He noted that floods also hit developed countries but human and economic losses are minimised due to effective early warning systems.

Amir also suggested that government should strengthen regulation for land use in riverine flood hazard areas. He said that people should be allowed to cultivate the land but not to build homes there.

A 2011 report on “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation,” produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, noted that countries with institutional and governance fragilities often lack the capacity to identify and reduce risks and to deal with emergencies and disasters effectively.

Major General Muhammad Saeed Aleem, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), said his organisation has prepared a 10-year National Disaster Management Plan that has been approved by the prime minister “but still there is much to do to cope with floods and other natural calamities.”

He said Pakistan has witnessed 20 major floods in its 66-year history but no investment has been made in flood prevention and reducing human and economic losses during floods.

FUNDS A PROBLEM

Aleem said the plan prepared by the NDMA covers upgrading flood forecasting and early warning systems and would involve buying new systems from developed countries. Money to pay for the systems is a problem, however, he said.

“We need $1.1 billion to implement the plan countrywide but we lack funding,” he said.

The problem is particularly severe because successive governments have made only minimal investment in coping with problems like climate change and natural disasters, he said. District and provincial disaster management authorities were set up last year to help provide a quick response to calamities but they still lack trained staff and financial resources, he said.

“It is sole responsibility of federal and provincial governments to enhance the capacity and capability of disaster management authorities so that they can take proactive measures to minimise the losses,” Aleem said.

Experts say economic losses due to floods could also be minimised to a significant extent if flood-resilient crops and building structures were introduced in flood-prone areas.

Shahid Masood, a crop sciences expert with the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, said that Pakistan has so far done nothing to introduce flood-resilient crops, as other countries in the world are doing.

He said that the council recently discussed with representatives of International Rice Research Institute bringing flood-resistant rice genes to Pakistan, but the process was expected to be lengthy.

“If we start working on this project today, it may take eight to ten years to complete,” he noted.

But Masood said that there was a dire need to begin long term projects to make more of Pakistan’s crops flood resilient. But his institution lacks both expertise and funding to initiative viable projects, he said.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad. His Twitter handle is @AamirSaeed_

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