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Fragile environment

BY N O M A N A H M E D 2022-09-05
TORRENTIAL rains and the resultant floods have wreaked havoc across the country. People and livestock have perished; millions have been displaced. Thousands of families remain marooned, with little possibility of an early rescue; many others are preparing to move to places of relative safety. Rescue and relief efforts by various government agencies, NGOs and welfare wings of political parties are continuing.

Access itself has become a huge challenge as roads, highways and other land transportation have been severely damaged. Images of collapsing houses, hotels, bridges, culverts, embankments, streets and hutments show the fury of the inundating waters. It is a matter of concern that buildings and structures constructed with cement, concrete and steel have also collapsed in large numbers. The anarchy and crass corruption in our built environment that is unable to withstand extreme weather events stand fully exposed. Once the rescue and relief phase concludes, the greater challenges of rehabilitation and redevelopment will emerge. National and provincial task forces must be immediately constituted and comprise technocrats from the relevant fields to steer the process. Some urgent core tasks are outlined here.

Once the waters recede, a nationwide land survey will be required to cover inundation patterns, topographical variations, changes in ground levels, reasons for the flooding of roads and highways, obstructions to water flows, the identification of illegal embankments and spots where trees have been unlawfully uprooted, the performance of existing waterways, etc. The study should indicate the degree ofvulnerability of settlements and suggest mitigation options. Using digital tools, simulation and modelling, inundation rates and drainage challenges can be identified.

Provincial boards of revenue must be tasked to share land ownership data with the task forces to enable the resettlement process on safer ground. Laws and procedures should be in sync if real estate schemes and other development that alters natural and desired drainage paths are to be avoided. As climate patterns change, it is becoming increasingly clear that more unpredictable weather will be experienced.

The governments must also notify no-constructionzones.Structuresareoftenlocated along an active river path as the harrowing footage of building collapses in Swat has shown.

Rain and flood victims are generally housed in schools, colleges, etc. In many cases, such buildings have been poorly constructed and hardly extend relief. Ahead of the monsoons, an official district-wiseassessment can ascertain the status of schools and other public facilities for possible accommodation in the event of disaster evacuation. Standards must be revised to ensure top quality of design, construction and services. Mock exercises can be carried out to assess the suitability of buildings for people during emergencies. Thoughtful planning can ensure that educational activities are not disrupted too much even though the premises are being used by victims of disaster.

Other government buildings that can be easily accessed by people in the low-lying areas must be identified and modified for emergency use. Temporary shelters such as tents could be made available through district-level distribution points. The present disaster has proved that heavy monsoon rains can even cause flooding in places at a distance from rivers and canals. The choice of location for building complexes that could also be used as emergency shelters must be made carefully. Secure sites, easily accessible locations, solid construction,dependable internal services, and installation of essential com.

munication systems are important factors.

The bulk of our buildings are haphazardly constructed, without design or professional construction advice. Ifwe wish to have safe, resilient buildings then capacity building of service providers is a prerequisite. Site selection and analysis, orientation, accommodation needs and adjustments, matching resources with the desired level of construction, engineering advice on foundations and super-structures, and much else can be incorporated through capacity-enhancement programmes. The federal government intends to start a national internship programme. New graduates in architecture and civil and building engineering can work on these tasks under the supervision of senior professionals.

Such tasks depend on the extent of local mobilisation, consistent support from provincial and local governments and the assistance of professional bodies such as the Institution of Engineers Pakistan, the Institute of Architects, Pakistan and the PakistanMedical Association-bodies that can and would want to play a vital role in the redevelopment process. The federal and provincial governments must act fast to build on the support available to enable the process of redevelopment. • The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.