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Decolonised water: lessons from Pakistan

Having previously outlined a decolonial approach to water management, Daanish Mustafa draws out the specific lessons to be learned from the floods in Pakistan and South Asia in 2022

This is part 2 of Daanish Mustafa's analysis of the Pakistan floods from a decolonial perspective. Read part 1 here.

How might a decolonised water perspective, and practice, mitigate the effects of floods like those experienced by Pakistan in 2022? If decolonising water is about recentring multiple layers of meaning and practice that are associated with water at the local and indigenous scale, then one will have to move beyond the obsession with dams and mega-infrastructure projects. Pakistani water managers suffer from an acute case of mega-projectivitus—a deadly disease caused by modernity and a blind commitment to colonial modes of thinking and practice. Paradoxically, in Pakistan, like the rest of the global South, the policy elites have an almost fanatical commitment to colonial thinking and practices. Much of the extensive infrastructure development, including dams, barrages, canals and levees in the context of floods have served to exacerbate the flood pulses of the Indus rivers. Colonial engineering paradigms have exchanged high frequency low intensity events that were ecologically beneficial for low frequency high intensity events which wreak the kind of destruction we are witnessing today in Pakistan. I outline below what a decolonised water approach to flood management would like in Pakistan.

The first and foremost priority for flood management in Pakistan, or anywhere, should be early warning systems that are credible, actionable, comprehensible and as accurate as possible. Colonial water approaches prioritise the accuracy of ‘models’. A decolonial approach would emphasize:

1) The credibility of the warning by engaging local communities through schools and civil society in data collection and information sharing. The warning system would also learn from vernacular practices of forecasting and experiential meteorology;

2) Actionable practicality by engaging local communities in vulnerability assessment and flood plain mapping to chart out who can take what action in the event of an emergency, paying particular attention to intersectional gender dynamics;

3) Comprehensibility by again focusing on conveying timely warnings in jargon free vernacular languages which are comprehensible by everyone, particularly women and marginalised communities.

The second priority has to be drainage. Every farmer, or even local children, knows which way the water flows. They should be listened to, and any obstructions in the way of the natural drainage of water ways should be removed. This will not only help mitigate the intensity of the flood peaks, but also the duration of the inundation. Essential infrastructure like roads, railway lines and canals should have culverts, bridges and/or siphons to facilitate natural drainage.

Third, cancel and prevent real estate investments in flood plains, e.g., housing societies, hotels, expressways etc. Parks are the best use of flood plains. And along the same lines, please give some wetlands back to the rivers. One could not get a more effective moderator of flood peaks than wetlands, in addition to multiple ecological benefits of groundwater recharge, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

Fourth, undertake vulnerability mapping exercises for plain communities in consultation with those communities. Knowing patters of household and community vulnerability will help target the relief and recovery aid in the aftermath of floods to the most in need, instead of the usual pattern of flailing around with in appropriate aid. This could easily be undertaken using some existing vulnerability assessment indices, by for example the irrigation or revenue departments of Pakistan, which have the deepest penetration at the local level in the country.

Fifth, help local communities further reinforce their extant flood adjustments, e.g., building of homes and animal pens on elevated platforms. For those who can’t afford to build those shelters, the state should provide conveniently located human and animal shelters. In rural South Asia people will not evacuate if their animals cannot.

Sixth, decentralise governance to local government. The de facto federal but de jure centralised Pakistani state assumes flood affected peoples to be helpless victims in need of central government help. Nothing could be farther from the truth. People and communities come together, and the first source of help is always local. Work with democratic, empowered local governments who know their surroundings best for flood management and relief. The command and control approach perpetuated through the colonial bureaucracy is dysfunctional.

Seventh, prioritise women, gender minorities and marginalised communities as the recipients and administrators of aid. The patriarchal ethos in relief aid distribution only serves to further marginalise women, children and those most in need. Draw upon the strengths and capacities of women, for them to be conduits for articulating needs and disbursing aid.

Eighth, reintroduce geography and environmental sciences in the school curricula of Pakistan. Forty years of the absence of the subjects and their substitute phony history in the name of Pakistan studies has not yielded any more patriotic or enlightened citizens - only greater ignorance of the challenges that the country is facing. Build a culture of decolonial environmental sensitivity from schools upwards.

Ninth, do not focus on single hazards alone. All hazards, such as floods, have secondary and cascading hazards associated with them, e.g., in the city of Karachi the majority of the people die of electrocution from poor electricity infrastructure during floods. In rural areas people die of snake bites and water borne diseases. Pay attention to and plan for secondary local hazards that actually hurt people. Floods by themselves rarely cause so much direct damage as their secondary consequences.

Lastly, and most importantly to sum up the essence of all of the above, find some new text books which are not written by dead white men but instead combine the insights of modern science with the experiential local level environmental knowledge and cosmologies. Have some faith that the people of Pakistan own their land and water, are the greatest custodians and scholars of it. Benefit from their wisdom. All you need is some humility and decolonial deprogramming. Decolonised water is the only hope going forward in our climatically-changing times.

Daanish Mustafa is Professor in Critical Geography at King's College, London. Decolonising Geography collective are profoundly grateful to Professor Mustafa for sharing his insights with us.

The image at the head of this piece is taken by Ali Hyder Junejo, and can be found here.