In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Nepal, we are reminded time and time again that natural disasters are a destructive force of nature causing widespread loss of human life as well as economies. As monsoon fast approaches Pakistan, we need to ask ourselves; are we prepared to bear the loss that accompanies seasonal flooding almost every year, and how can we better mitigate the devastating affects of floods?

Pakistan normally experiences two types of flooding, riverine flooding which can take hours or even days to develop hence giving people ample time to evacuate to safer places, and flash flooding which is sudden and extreme, with a smaller time window for evacuation, as experienced in Peshawar just six days ago, with 44 people losing their lives.

Strengthening early warning and forecasting systems for floods and cyclones are absolutely key in working towards disaster risk reduction (DRR) in Pakistan. Although there is an active flood forecasting division (FFD) since 1992, it lacks the resources and political power to provide any meaningful dissemination of scientific data to local authorities in the event of flooding. At present early warning systems for riverine flooding in major catchment areas of Punjab, are weak at best, with no systems present for flash flooding. In order to implement a viable early warning system and efficient contingency plans, local knowledge of how people perceive the threat of floods, and how they respond in such events, is important to understand how dissemination of warning can be carried out most effectively.

The residents of Dairahdin Panah, a small village located in Kot Addu in Southern Punjab recall their experiences of the 2010 flood, and how their losses could have been reduced if someone had informed them in time. “It kept raining for days, more than what the usual monsoon rain looks like, but we didn’t hear anything from anyone. Only one afternoon, when we heard water roaring and gushing outside and people screaming and running in the direction of our village, did we pick up our children and run towards higher ground,” says one resident. Women and children are the more vulnerable groups during disasters, since in rural areas they bear most of the responsibilities raising their families and tending to the fields but are uneducated which is their greatest limitation.

We have all heard these stories of helplessness and utter destruction post disaster, the social and health problems faced in IDP camps, the unfair distribution of aid, the lack of resources to help these people rehabilitate and settle back into safer, less flood prone areas. But what we do not hear about is what efforts are being made to make these communities resilient and equip them to cut their losses and save not only themselves but also their cattle and belongings in a timely manner in case of future events.

This village is an example of many other villages like it in southern Punjab and Sindh, where each family only has access to one cell phone, no electricity hence no TV or radio and no access to newspapers since most of them are illiterate. So the only logical and feasible solution left is to provide face-to-face warnings, as suggested by the residents of Dairahdin Panah. They claim that the NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) does release funds for bund maintenances before monsoon, so they could employ someone from the community to watch for water levels during the rains and inform them in a timely manner so they can evacuate with their families as well as belongings on time. This is far less costly than the evacuations that the army personnel has to make post flood when families are stranded on the roofs of their homes with little or no hope of survival.

As for areas like KP where flash flooding is more prevalent, efforts have to be made to more on the science and prediction of weather systems. In mountainous areas, the NORA system (Nowcasting of Orographic Rainfall by means of Analogues) is one promising alternative. By comparing current radar images with archived radar images, it detects similarities to improve forecasts. It is very important that resources be allocated for research and development of weather prediction systems as well as to provide technical training to officials in the field of DRR. Since flash floods have a shorter response time, anywhere between 15 minutes to 3 hours, a timely accurate prediction has the potential to save many lives if government authorities disseminate warnings in time.