Pakistan’s Flood Redux: Need For Institutional Disaster Preparedness – Analysis


By Medha Bisht

Institutions are often assessed on the basis of their response to crises. The unfolding flood crisis in Sindh draws attention to the state of institutional response to disasters in Pakistan.

Ms. Maurvi Memon, a former PML-Q legislator, has alleged that the flood crisis in Sindh was manmade and that the Meteorological Department and Climate Change Committee had predicted the rainfall. Allegations have been labeled that despite the warning, the design default in irrigation and drainage systems of Sindh had not been rectified. While a lackadaisical attitude towards the implementation of water related issues has been the order of the day in Pakistan, institutions related to water management are further made ineffective due to their political orientation and institutionalised corruption. Reports had emerged during the August 2010 floods about the nexus between the timber mafia and the political leadership.1


Notwithstanding the political side to this issue, at the operational level, Pakistan’s National Water Sector Profile notes that the implementation of the institutional reforms has been slow and the primary reasons for it are: lack of consensus on the need for reforms, procedural delays in preparation and promulgation of rules and regulations. Parallel administrative ministries and departments, with little interaction between the federal and provincial levels, are some explanations for the lack of institutional effectiveness. There are also arguments which state that despite all initiatives for decentralisation the institutional framework has remained overtly centralized and thus lacking in accountability. A World Bank study on Pakistan’s water sector published in 2004 had noted that crores of rupees are paid by the people for positions in the irrigation department and once into the system they try to recoup their ‘investment’. In the same report, Imran Ali had argued that, “…with declining administrative efficiencies, overstretched organization resources, degraded service delivery, and unchecked corruption, there appears to be a glaring failure in irrigation management.”2

Given all this, it would be pertinent to look at the existing institutional structures in Pakistan. At the apex is the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), the para-statal organization which has the mandate of planning and building the irrigation infrastructure. WAPDA is also responsible for generation, transmission and distribution of power, except for Karachi where the Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC) undertakes these works. Both WAPDA and KESC are federal institutions under the control of the Ministry of Water and Power. WAPDA has decentralized power distribution through the creation of subsidiary companies responsible for the distribution of power and collection of revenues. Some other institutional line agencies enabling decentralisation are Provincial Irrigation and Drainage Authority (PIDA), followed by the Area Water Board (AWB), the Farmers’ Organizations (FOs) and the Water Course Associations (WCA).

PIDA is the successor to the Provincial Irrigation Department (PID) and is an autonomous body responsible for independent revenue collection. Its main functions relate to maintaining barrage outlets assigned to it. It is also responsible for operating and maintaining spinal and link drains and carrying out river flood protection.

The second in line, the Area Water Board, is a self accounting body and is primarily responsible for the canal command and branch canals. It also operates and maintains drainage tube wells with capacity larger than 15 cusecs. It carries out flood protection and maintains infrastructure within its command areas. It also promotes the formation, development and growth of farmer organizations.

The Farmer Organisations are primarily constituted along the distributary system. It ensures equitable distribution of water to small and tail end farmers. It supplies non-agricultural users, guarantees minimum drinking water, carries out flood protection and maintains infrastructure within its command area.

Water Course Associations are below the Farmer Organizations. The majority of farmers’ along the water course constitute the WCA. The WCA is registered by the field officer.

While drainage, irrigation and agriculture are provincial subjects, flood control and inter-provincial drainage are federal subjects. The federal government monitors the development and management of water resources. If the provinces are not satisfied with the decisions of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), which decides on allocation and distribution of water, they can, under Article-155, appeal to the Council of Common Interest, an institution created under the constitution of 1973 for resolving provincial disputes.

As far as institutional structures for flood management are concerned, the process operates through different government organisations. The Federal Flood Commission plays a major role in remodelling the flood mitigation policy. Established in 1977, it is the coordinating body at the federal level. The Flood Forecasting Division of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) plays a pivotal role in the entire flood mitigation process. At the federal level, functions of the WAPDA relate to management of dams, with its major functions being the collection of rainfall data from telemetric rain gauge stations and the provision of hydro-electric flood data at rim stations and barrages. At the provincial level, the functions of the Provincial Irrigation and Drainage Authority include: (i) flow measurement at specific sites of rivers, canals and drains, (ii) planning, design, construction and maintenance of flood protection works. The provincial relief organisations are charged with the responsibility of disaster preparedness, emergency responses and post disaster activities.

Army flood related functions encompass all rescue and relief operations during and after floods. An Emergency Relief Cell under the Cabinet Division and controlled by the Cabinet Secretary also exists. Its main functions include the planning and assessment of relief requirements of major disasters and stockpiling of basic necessities during emergency.3 Though the National Disaster Management Act was enacted in 2010, the operational aspects of the Act are yet to be implemented.

While the institutional reforms and structures are in place, often their effectiveness is impeded by corrupt practices and lack of proper maintenance and implementation on ground. Acting as intervening variables, thus weakening the efficacy of institutions, are social, political and economic factors. Socially, iniquitous land distribution directly impacts user rights as ownership of land in many cases remains a proxy for water rights. During floods, the situation exacerbates as water is often diverted to someone else’s land.

Politically, the state has enormous power over people, particularly when it comes to monitoring user rights. The overarching framework governing this relationship is the Canal and Drainage Act, 1873, which is the key legislation, regulating water policy. The Act strengthens the hand of the state, recognizing its strong right to administer water policies. When the state is controlled by leadership groups that are not responsible to the people, as has been the case during most of Pakistan’s history, there can be a great deal of misuse of power.

Economically, the maintenance costs of the existing water projects pose a challenge. All costs of the water projects are supposed to be borne by the provincial governments. Kaiser Bengal, a leading expert on water issues in Pakistan, attributes the declining Operations and Maintenance (O & M) expenditure to the growing constraints on provincial finances. Such constraints, he argues, are imposed by the decreasing allocation of finances.4 The recovery practices are a prerequisite for executing these maintenance expenditures, as the abiana (water rate) collected is abysmally low.

Almost a decade ago, an empirical study “Identifying Basins at Risk” was conducted. The main hypothesis of this project by Aaron.T.Wolf and others was that the likelihood and intensity of dispute rises as the rate of change within a basin exceeds institutional capacity to absorb that change. The primary indicator, thus identified for political stress, was weak institutional structure incapable of absorbing change-which could be induced from demographic shifts, environmental impact, hydrologic variability. Economic reforms and equitable societal norms form the bulwark of institutional building. In Pakistan’s case, carelessness on this front weakens institutions, thus creating conditions for disaster vulnerability. Such vulnerability can be seen in the lives of millions of people who have been uprooted across the 23 districts of Sindh and the millions more who are likely to be affected by water-borne diseases and health problems.

1. See Medha Bisht, Pakistan Floods: Causes and Consequences, IDSA Comment, August 19, 2010.
2. World Bank, Pakistan Water Economy: Running Dry, 2005, p. 18.
3. Technical Support Unit (ed.), Pakistan: Flood Management-River Chenab from Marala to Khanki, Associated Programme on Flood Management, Pakistan Meteorological Department, Islamabad, December 2003,
4. Kaisar Bengali, “Water Managemnt Under Constraints: The Need for a Paradign Shift”, in Michael Kugelman and Robert. M. Hathaway (eds.), Running on Empty: Pakistan’s Water Crises, Washington: Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, 2009, p. 58.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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