A Failure of Conscience: How Pakistan's Devastating Floods Compare to America's Experience During Katrina

Author:Oded Cedar
Position:J.D. candidate, May 2012, at American University Washington College of Law
FALL 2010 46
Americans, seeing the destruction this summer from floods
in Pakistan, cannot help but draw comparisons to the
devastation in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.1
Both raised serious questions about governmental response to
natural disasters,2 although the failings of both governments do
not permit easy comparisons.3 Despite the differences between
the two, Pakistan can learn from the U.S. response to Katrina: that
with overcrowding in urban areas4 and limited resources, Pakistan
will likely be unable to overcome the geographic challenges of
evacuation. Instead, Pakistan must rely on flood prevention tech-
niques, primarily in its cities, as its central line of defense.
Various natural and human causes contributed to the flooding
in Pakistan. Two leading preventable causes were deforestation and
waterway planning.5 For years, the “timber mafia” has plundered
Pakistan’s forests, reducing the country’s tree cover from 14% to
5.2% in the last seventy-five years.6 Pakistan’s forests provide an
essential defense against floods by trapping water and breaking
up forceful currents.7 Because of their loss, floodwaters rose with
unprecedented rapidity.8 Adding to the catastrophe, the floodwaters
swept away the illegally harvested logs, which destroyed bridges
and filled the dams meant to defend against flooding.9 Illicit loggers
act with impunity in Pakistan through representation in the govern-
ment and by bribing politicians.10 By corrupting elements of Paki-
stan’s government, the “timber mafia” destroyed Pakistan’s most
important natural defenses against flooding.
Pakistan’s waterway infrastructure also exacerbated the dam-
age from flooding. The waterway system was built to benefit
wealthy landowners, without regard for environmental impacts or
flood prevention.11 After the floods, Prime Minister Gilani claimed
that a proposed dam at Kalabagh would have averted much of the
devastation.12 But his belief in the ability of large dams to prevent
flooding is misplaced.13 The Kalabagh dam project is meant to
take pressure off the weakening Tarbela dam.14 Like the Mangla
and Tarbela dams, Kalabagh’s dual objectives are hydro-electrical
and agricultural, not flood control.15 Studies show that the Mangla
and Tarbela dams actually increased the severity of flooding.16 The
Taunsa Barrage, one of Pakistan’s most vulnerable water diversion
mechanisms, also increased flooding by routing water to higher
grounds that do not normally flood.17 Many worry that the Kalabagh
dam will simply be another ticking time bomb for future floods.18
Historically, Pakistan’s dams are the product of centralized
decision-making to increase agricultural and electrical output, with
little input from environmentalists or local communities.19 Environ-
mental organizations have criticized Pakistan’s water system engi-
neers for paying insufficient attention to the environmental effects
of large dam projects.20 One such effect, sedimentation, worsens
a Failure oF conScience: how paKiStanS DevaStating
FlooDS compare to americaS eXperience During Katrina
by Oded Cedar*
* Oded Cedar is a J.D. candidate, May 2012, at American University Washing-
ton College of Law
flooding by raising riverbeds and minimizing the capacity of dams
to hold water.21 By ignoring the environmental impacts of these
large projects Pakistan’s government missed an opportunity to miti-
gate the flooding and instead made it worse.22
Pakistan’s flood policy failed for different reasons than did
the U.S. gov ernment’s du ring Hurric ane Katrina . The levees
failed during Katrina because the U.S Army Corps of Engineers
did not design them to withstand a storm surge from a Cate-
gory 5 hurricane, and because all levels of government failed to
maintain the levees, which caused them to leak and give way.23
The decision to reduce levee maintenance funding in the months
prior to K atrina exemplifies the federal government’s failure.24
But, despite t he overwhelm ing evidence of government mis-
management, government investigations found no evi dence of
corruption or class favoritism in the case of Katrina.25 Still, Pak-
istan can learn from America’s experience.
Even the United States, with all its resources and access to
timely information,26 could not effectively evacuate masses of
people.27 With its limited resources,28 Pakistan cannot rely on
evacuation. The current flooding in Pakistan left ten million people
displaced and submerged twenty percent of the country.29 Pakistan
spreads across more than 300,000 miles,30 almost ten times the area
of New Orleans,31 with a population of about 170 million,32 com-
pared to 223,000 residents in New Orleans.33 The national govern-
ment is weakened by constantly bickering provincial authorities.34
Most of Pakistan’s population lives in rural areas along the Indus riv-
erbanks.35 However, migration caused an annual urban population
growth of three percent.36 Urban decay, overcrowding, and weak
infrastructure in the cities create vulnerable pockets of dense popula-
tion.37 These factors make an effective evacuation exceedingly diffi-
cult, and the shaky Pakistani government risks further destabilization
if it does not prepare appropriately for the next flood.38
The government cannot rely on evacuation to cope with future
floods. Instead, Pakistan must look to flood prevention. The cities
must be Pakistan’s central focus, as the weakened rural areas will
drive more people to the cities.39 Nationally, the government must
legislate to conserve the remaining forests, and invest in refores-
tation.40 It must adopt a cost–benefit analysis for large dam con-
struction that accounts for flood mitigation, sedimentation, and
population displacement.41 Finally, the international community,
speaking through organizations such as the World Bank, must
fund projects that further flood prevention.42
Endnotes: A Failure of Conscience on page 70