An interview with Ahmed Kamal, Chairman Federal Flood Commission

‘Pakistan facing extreme volatility in weather pattern, not water scarcity’

Ahmed Kamal is no stranger in water policy circles of the capital. Most recently, in his role as the Chief Engineering Advisor for Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), he was instrumental in drafting of National Water Policy, 2018. Kamal joined the ministry in 1990 as a junior engineer and has spent a greater part of his thirty-year long service working for Federal Flood Commission.

Under his chairmanship, Federal Flood Commission formulated the fourth 10-year National Flood Protection Plan, which is awaiting Planning Commission assent for fund allocation.

Kamal has also served with National Disaster Management Authority in two stints since its inception, where he was responsible for formulation of National Disaster Risk Reduction Policy, 2013.

As the monsoon season rages across the country in its full might, BR Research sat down with Kamal to break through the noise and understand tangible risks of floods in the coming weeks and discuss the preparedness of governmental bodies to deal with a fall out.

What follows is a discussion of governance and structural challenges currently facing Disaster Management sector in general and FFC in particular; followed by a brief exchange on climate change and associated risks to environment due to extreme weather events.

BR Research: Tell us about the history and current mandate of Federal Flood Commission. What major projects have been undertaken by the department to date?

Ahmed Kamal: In 1956, Central Engineering Authority was established by the federal government to ensure review and technical scrutiny of all water and hydropower projects. Later, when WAPDA was formed, the department morphed into Office of Chief Engineering Advisor (CEA). After severe floods of 1973 and 1976, a parliamentary resolution was passed to constitute a Federal Flood Commission (FFC) under the Office of CEA.

The objective of this Commission is to prepare and implement flood related works under the ten-year National Flood Protection Plans, in addition to original responsibilities of the office of CEA. These include projects funded by federal government as well as those funded with donor support. In addition, a Dam Safety Council was also constituted under the office of Chairperson FFC to take periodic technical inspections of major dams.

Since its formation, FFC has successfully helped in improving the Flood Forecasting and Warning System; ensured implementation of SOPs for regulation of Tarbela & Mangla reservoirs, of various flood protection sector projects on-ground; and of flood-related damage restoration activities. In addition, three seminal studies on environmental flows and sea-water intrusion - known as Kotri Barrage studies - were also conducted by FFC. It also offered crucial input by way of conducting technical studies and research that went into drafting of IRSA Act and Water Apportionment Accord of 1991-92.

More recently, the organisation played a pivotal role in getting the National Water Policy (NWP) approved from CCI in 2018. Today, FFC is the notified secretariat of National Water Council for implementation of NWP.

BRR: Let’s now move on to National Flood Protection Plan, which is the primary focal area for your department. It has been six years since preliminary consultation on NFPP-IV formulation began. Why is the plan yet to enter implementation phase?

AK: NFPP-IV formulation began in the aftermath of devastating floods of 2010. It was formally approved by CCI in May 2017, after a rigorous consultative process both at technical and political levels. Based on the plan, umbrella PC-1 was prepared and approved by all provincial PDWP, following which MoWR submitted it to Planning Commission for consideration in latest federal budget allocations.

However, Ministry of Planning & Development declined to allocate any funds against the Rs15 billion that was asked for FY2020. But rest assured that even in absence of federal government allocations, we are making efforts to secure donor funding under the guidance of incumbent federal minister.

BRR: Critics argue that FFC’s role is redundant given an autonomous body already exists in the form of NDMA to deal with disaster management, while flood and irrigation is effectively a provincial subject. How would you respond?

AK: FFC’s efforts in disaster risk reduction pre-date NDMA, which only came into existence in 2010. Before that FFC implemented three NFPPs successfully. None of FFC’s projects that were fully implemented on-ground have faced any damage during subsequent floods.

Appreciate that the FFC provides a coordination mechanism that would otherwise be absent in water sector policymaking and project implementation. Its members include CEA; DG Engineer; DG Met department; provincial irrigation secretaries; and representatives from NDMA, IRSA, NHA, Pakistan Railway, Infrastructure Division – Planning Commission, and member from Pakistan Commission for Indus Water Treaty. Thus, FFC brings together all relevant actors from federal and provincial levels to one forum.

All flood protection plans of provinces that seek federal government financing are submitted to FFC for technical review, which then circulates its observation to all members who provide key input. Only when the relevant province has complied with all observations given by FFC and its members, the project receives FFC’s final assent. Subject to ministry’s endorsement it is sent to Planning Commission to secure CDWP/ECNEC’s approval for financing. FFC also undertakes post-approval field monitoring visits; in the past we have also held inquiries where implementation did not meet approved specifications.

BRR: FFC’s role since its inception is well-taken. But as you acknowledged, NFPP-IV is already overdue. In fact, FFC has been unable to secure approval for any new initiative since NDMA was established.

AK: NDMA does not have any technical resource, and its approach is primarily reactive. Since its inception, FFC has implemented almost 1,650 projects of mitigation and disaster risk reduction in the domain of hydrometeorology; none of federal government’s disaster mitigation projects have been funded through NDMA, and the organisation has not undertaken any DRR projects in hydrometeorology.

I can say it with confidence that no organisation has played a role even close to FFC’s in improving the Flood Forecasting & Warning System, and River Telemetry. Thirty-one automated weather data collection projects implemented by Met department were all approved under the umbrella of NFPP. All the data received by Met department today is due to 69 high frequency radio communication systems that were installed all over the country on irrigation networks, barrages and dams – again, approved and financed under NFPP.

In addition, complete mapping of floodplains of all major rivers was conducted, which gives a dynamic forecasting of various flood-levels in the form of Flood Warning Manual. Seminal studies on groundwater have been conducted and well-received by independent commentators. The list goes on.

Moreover, chairperson FFC is an ex-officio member of IRSA, and has representation in divisions for Climate Change; Food Security; represents Pakistan in International Commission of Large Dams; in International Commission on Irrigation & Drainage; and has a very strong coordinating role with Commission for Indus Water Treaty. How can any of these roles be performed by NDMA, which mainly focuses on post-disaster rescue and relief activities?

Having said that, the entire disaster risk mitigation system needs to be overhauled. Why have parallel authorities, when all the departments can be brought under one umbrella organisation, just as ERRA was brought under the domain of disaster management.

If we are to implement Hyogo and Sendai Frameworks for Disaster Risk Reduction in true spirit, we need to change the current approach based on ad hocism, and instead focus on preparedness and adaptation.

BRR: You have worked for both FFC and NDMA for almost three decades. As an insider, what structural bottlenecks exist that have prevented the UNDRR vision from being implemented? More specifically, what has hindered professionals such as you who have served entire career with the department from helping address these bottlenecks?

AK: First, professionals with requisite skillset do not have a career path in departments such as FFC. It is a technical body and needs permanent hiring of human resource that possesses both technical education/training and experience. A junior engineer should have a prospective career at least up to member, if not chairpersonship.

Second, just as the national disaster management policy was prepared by NDMA, FFC has played a similar role in preparation of NWP. The difference is that NDMA is an autonomous body and hence has its own fund under the Act of Parliament. On a day-to-day basis, this gives NDMA freedom to increase staff allowances, and enjoy better perks and privileges generally.

It might sound mundane but a grade-17 official in an autonomous body such as NDMA enjoys fuel allowance up to 150 litres per month, whereas in an attached department such as FFC even a grade-19 employee is not entitled to official vehicle. Even medical treatment entitlements differ from Polyclinic for FFC staff to Shifa International for NDMA. That’s just two of many such examples.

Because FFC came into being as a result of a national assembly resolution, it can be abolished tomorrow if the government so wishes. NDMA’s establishment as a DRR body, in contrast, was binding on the government as a signatory of Hyogo Framework. This is reflected in NDMA’s operational and financial independence, which attached departments such as FFC lack.

I would like to add that NDMA has a National Disaster Management Fund, which is used for relief activities such as provision of tents. While I was working with NDMA I advocated - unsuccessfully - that the fund should be allocated towards disaster preparedness as well.

BRR: Let’s now move on to more current developments. Back in April, you were quoted in the media claiming that Pakistan is at the risk of super floods this year. Halfway through the monsoon season, do you believe the risk persists?

AK: I had said that we can experience an extreme disaster event this year, although I had not used the term of ‘super-floods’. The metrological department validated my prediction and we have experienced above normal rainfall in both Sindh and Balochistan. In Punjab and KP, we continue to expect higher than normal rainfall.

The situation in Karachi and other urban cities also validates what I had shared in April. As per the met department, the first week of August is sensitive as the water-level in Tarbela is at 1,532 feet against 1,389 feet in June, leaving a space of only 18 feet before reaching full capacity.

The same is also true for Mangla. A disaster is in the making if the inflow from glacial melts increases due to rising temperatures. There is a risk of flash floods if rain persists for over 24 hours in any region near river catchments at a time when the dams are almost full.

Moreover, cyclones occur when sea surface temperature increases, which is currently true for Bay of Bengal. Today, our coastline is more susceptible to cyclones as compared to in previous years.

The carbon dioxide being emitted from power plants is getting deposited in our glaciers. This increases the intensity of the melting process. The water starts seeping into the ground and as soon as it faces a barrier it erupts at that blockage. It happened in 2015 and it is happening right now as we speak.

Put together, these factors can be a recipe for disaster, and risk of an extreme weather event is very palatable in coming weeks.

BRR: Super floods would very well be an anomaly. However, do you agree that risk of flash flood persists, nevertheless? How does this risk measure up compared to previous years?

AK: Flash floods have already taken place this year and will continue to occur. They have increased especially because rainfall has become more intense which has proven more devastating for the region and infrastructure exposed to it.

BRR: Is it correct that groundwater recharge is minimal during extreme rainfall events as more rainwater flows to the sea?

AK: Ground water recharge during extreme rainfall is possible in areas that have abundant forests. Heavy precipitation does not preclude recharge. Eventually of course excess water recedes into the sea.

BRR: Barring the serious water shortage last year, average water availability during last decade has been at par with levels recorded in 2000s decade at 95MAF. Is it correct to insist that the country is witnessing a problem of water shortage, or is this primarily a case of increased variability in weather, particularly monsoon rain? Have we witnessed significant monsoon variability during current season?

AK: We are facing erratic weather patterns. But we also need better water management practices. These practices must be designed such that we are able to control water theft. We essentially need better water accounting. I don’t think that we face water scarcity. We have an inability to manage the water that becomes available to us through the form of natural resources such as rainfall.

Because of poor management, we have experienced periods when water supply exceeded demand but was not stored, and alternatively periods when supply was constrained, and lack of storage led to drought-like conditions. I don’t think we have yet experienced extreme water variability at least during this year. And to that end I will commend WAPDA’s role in improving integrated water resource management in the ongoing season.

BRR: The last time PMD published a longitudinal study of precipitation trends in various climatic zones was based on data up to 2005. That study by and large indicated no change in rainfall trends during the decade leading up to 2005 and the one before. Do latest studies based on more up-to-date data indicate a substantive decline in precipitation trend in more recent years?

AK: I have not seen any other precipitation studies. A former DG of met department, Dr Ghulam Masood, published a forecast in 2016, which identified regions that were susceptible to very high rainfall as well as those that would be subject to droughts.

Prior to this study Arif Mehmood, another former met DG and predecessor of Dr Ghulam Masood, had prepared a forecast for 2017 to 2023. That had indicated that Pakistan would experience drought like conditions beginning 2017. Some of the changes witnessed in recent years, including monsoon in areas that were earlier unaffected by it, heavy rainfall near river catchments, and precipitation towards urban areas has increased in the past 10 years. All of these together indicate that overall precipitation trends across climatic zones have changed since 2005.

BRR: Is there substantive evidence indicating that glacial melt has increased significantly over last decade? Has this been established as a fact, considering we continue to hear contradicting evidence coming from the so-called ‘Karakoram Anomaly’?

AK: We do not have research that can help us understand or validate this phenomenon. WAPDA and met department are engaged in research to help understand and monitor the frequency and intensity of glacial melt. We need a large-scale study to understand the impact of climate change on glacial melt to be able to corelate with changes in water availability.

BRR: Do you agree with the insistence on building of large-scale dams considering their negative impact on environmental flows to sea. Consider also that increase in seawater intrusion along coastline has been well documented during the last decade?

AK: The Kotri Barrage studies conducted in 2005 were based on a CCI decision taken in 1991 to verify credibly claims of seawater intrusion. It was concluded that that minimum 10MAF water will have to be allowed as environmental flows to avoid seawater intrusion.

The study involved use of certain models adopted based on global practices. It identified that 25MAF excess water is received, allowing for five dams each with 5MAF storage. Pervaiz Musharraf in 2005 quoted the World Bank study in a speech when announcing the construction of the Bhasha Dam. Dams are needed to provide for the exponential increase in population. But these dams will not become available tomorrow; what we need urgently is water conservation in agricultural practices so that we can provide water for other purposes.