The history of disasters in South Asia reveals what is at stake in the face of climate change. Analyses of data for natural disasters — from the international disaster database EM-DAT, and covering hazards including droughts, epidemics, floods and landslides — shows that India is the country that has been most affected by these events since 1900, followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. 
Every year, agricultural losses related to disaster cost Pakistan an average of US$15-20 million. This is due to poor governance, rural communities residing inside flood-prone areas, a lack of adaptive agricultural research and a resistance to changing what has become a ‘flood business’ — the government compensating those affected by floods and then resettling them back to the same flood-prone areas. This spells a need to rethink the country’s national framework for disaster management to protect its agricultural economy.
Rising disaster risk
According to EM-DAT data, the risk of natural disasters in Pakistan has increased over the past 100 years: four per cent (four events) of the global total of natural disasters occurred in the country during 1900-1947, rising to 64 per cent (79 events) during 1948-1990 and 32 per cent (40 events), in just the past 15 years, from 1991-2015.
Development policy has also changed, alongside these trends, over the past few decades. There is no doubt that Pakistan has shifted towards industries based on agricultural raw materials such as cotton ginning (separating fibres from seeds) or rice exports — much less agricultural growth is occurring among farming communities. The agro-industrial sector contributes around 21-25 per cent to national GDP (gross domestic product).
Wheat, cotton, sugar cane and rice are the crops of major economic importance for the country. Wheat is mainly grown in the Rabi growing season (October-May), which generally avoids the floods caused by monsoon rains that typically fall from June until September. It follows that extreme monsoon events and floods harm the national economy directly — through losses to life and of crops, livestock and houses — and indirectly, through the huge investments the government then needs to make to rehabilitate affected areas.
Cotton, sugar cane, rice and other high-value crops are mainly grown in Kharif season (July-September), when they are most at risk from the monsoon floods. Cotton contributes an average of around 1.5 per cent to GDP, with rice providing 0.7 per cent, sugar cane 0.6 per cent and maize 0.4 per cent.
The numbers on losses speak for themselves. During the flooding that took place in each of the past six years (2010-2015), Pakistan lost cumulatively more than an estimated 1,359,000 hectares of cotton, 372,000 hectares of sugar cane and around 1,391,000 hectares of rice. [2-4, unpublished data 2013-15]
“Although geospatial technology can help to map and monitor areas at risk of disaster, this is not enough. The adoption of policies to reduce the impacts of flooding needs legislation.”
Ibrar ul Hassan Akhtar
No doubt, the 2010 floods were the worst in terms of geographical extent and damage to crops. But they also highlighted the lack of a preparedness infrastructure and mechanisms in Pakistan.
Life on the edge
Systems that rely on satellite technology, such as remote sensing and geographic information systems, have helped improve the country’s management of disasters, through near-real-time situation analysis, coverage of a wider area than could be monitored physically on the ground, and through spatial analysis. Crucially, this technology has also enabled us to understand how many of the country’s rural population live inside or near flood-prone areas and rely on smallholdings for their livelihood.
In the province of Punjab, 531,000 hectares (4.4 per cent) of agriculture is practised inside the floodplain; in Sindh province, the figure is 489,000 hectares (7.4 per cent).
During the monsoon season, rising rivers can easily flood crops up to five to ten kilometres around the river channel. Geospatial analyses have identified several districts in Punjab and Sindh with significant areas of crops growing inside floodplains during the July-September flood season. But although geospatial technology can help to map and monitor areas at risk of disaster, this is not enough. The adoption of policies to reduce the impacts of flooding needs legislation — to permanently relocate families to safer zones, adopt flood-resilient cropping practices as a preventive measure, and promote research into cropping systems adapted to floods. In essence, it needs a revised disaster-management framework.
Such a framework would also reinforce the role of technology, by promoting tools that are more time-effective and reliable. For example, conventional approaches to data collection in Pakistan rely on centuries-old administrative systems; they need to be revamped with state-of-the-art geospatial technologies that can visualise and measure every inch of land surface in the country.
Capacity building is important too: those running management systems lack proper technical skills, adding further to improper planning and the tendency towards unscientific approaches to tackling natural disasters.
Pakistan needs a framework that promotes proper assessments of climate change, develops mitigation strategies, maps risk-prone areas by classifying multiple disasters and supports research for agricultural adaptations that can add resilience to cropping systems. The country’s bureaucratic approach to disaster management needs to turn into a technocratic one.
Ibrar ul Hassan Akhtar is a scientist at Pakistan’s Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, Islamabad. He can be contacted at [email protected]
The views expressed in this article are his and do not reflect the official view of his organisation.