Torrential monsoon rains between June and August have inundated large swaths of southern Pakistan—equivalent to almost 10% of the country—and have affected more than 33 million people. While the true costs of the floods are yet to be known, estimates suggest that damages to housing, transport, crops and livestock could amount up to US$30 billion. Down the line, the floods could also compromise Pakistan’s health sector and food security, as aid agencies warn of the spread of waterborne diseases as well as food price spikes and supply chain disruptions as a result of the floods.
Experts have already begun citing a number of factors that could have led to the floods. These include the La Niña phenomenon which brought excessive rainfall into the region, as well as Pakistan’s political turmoil that left the country ill-prepared for the floods despite warnings as early as May. Some have also pointed out more localised factors that could have amplified the floods’ impacts, such as deforestation and the removal of flood-mitigating mangrove swamps, as well as poor housing infrastructure in flood-prone areas.
For the time being, scientists are cautious on putting an exact figure on how much human-made global warming has contributed to the floods, but they agree that climate change has likely increased the intensity of rainfalls that led to the deluge. Indeed, it could become an increasingly important factor—according to the latest assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the region is likely to face more intense and variable annual and summer monsoon rainfalls throughout the rest of the century.
The case for dams
For decades, dams have been touted as a way to address Pakistan’s flood hazards. Advocates of the proposed Kalabagh Dam in Punjab—still under planning since its initial conception in 1953—argue that the dam, upon completion, would help regulate high flood peaks in the Indus River. Similar arguments were also made for the Diamer Bhasha Dam in Gilgit-Baltistan, the construction of which was inaugurated in July 2020 after more than four decades of planning. The 2022 floods appear to have once again triggered fresh debates on the need to construct additional mega dams.
At the same time, proponents argue that dams could help Pakistan address its water, food and energy crises by storing and providing water for irrigation and hydropower. Furthermore, dams are also seen as an important tool for climate mitigation—Pakistan’s updated Nationally Determined Contributions includes hydropower as a critical part of the country’s energy transition to renewables, while also highlighting its role in ensuring affordable and efficient energy supply.
Tensions over dams
Not everyone in Pakistan views dams in the same light. Downstream communities fear that the construction of dams would severely disrupt their access to safe and sufficient water resources. Communities that risk losing their livelihoods also fear that they may not receive adequate benefits and compensation, particularly smaller landowners who are often disproportionately affected. As a result, tensions have frequently emerged over the planning of dams in the past—the Kalabagh Dam, for example, has been a source of recurring disputes between the downstream Sindh province and the upstream Punjab province who are often in favour of large-scale infrastructure projects.
To mitigate water-related conflicts, Pakistan has a number of institutions and legislations to draw on. The Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) is primarily responsible for water and hydropower management, while the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) specifically addresses conflicts surrounding water distribution in the Indus River. Decisions of the IRSA can subsequently be brought before the constitutional Council of Common Interests (CCI), which brings conflicting parties together to discuss disagreements. However, the decisions of these institutions have historically been challenged, thus affecting their legitimacy in resolving water conflicts.
Solutions beyond dams
Can dams then really be an effective, mutually acceptable solution to floods? Put it differently, what sustainable, less contentious options are there to address Pakistan’s worsening flood crisis? Some experts argue that it is perhaps time to look at other solutions beyond dams. These include upgrading the country’s colonial-era drainage and irrigation systems, enforcing rules and creating incentives to build in less flood-prone areas, and implementing anti-corruption measures to improve public trust and accountability in water management institutions.
The floods have also sparked renewed calls for the international community —and especially industrialised nations—to speed up efforts in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and delivering on promises to finance loss and damage, particularly as Pakistan emits less than 1% of global emissions. During COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the floods provided an important backdrop to drive negotiations on loss and damage, with Pakistan leading the G77 plus China negotiating bloc on the topic.
As the case of the current floods in Pakistan show, there is a real and urgent need to address the devastating impacts of the climate crisis, particularly as we can expect such events to happen more frequently—and less predictably —in the future. Dams could be one option to address these risks, but the real solutions may lie in other forms, which the international community could (and should) play a bigger role in supporting Pakistan with.