Tens of thousands evacuated in Pakistan as Punjab hit with flooding

More than 80,000 rescued this monsoon season, which began in July and will continue until September

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In the picturesque Bamboret valley in northern Pakistan, men, women and children farm peacefully in fields surrounded by mountains – but this idyllic scene can change in an instant with the arrival of an unexpected downpour.

As floodwaters rush menacingly down the mountains and hills, residents quickly exit their homes, leaving behind all their possessions. People shout in panic as the Muslim call to prayer echoes across the village.

Muhammad Amin, a long-time resident of Bamboret, said residents have feared floods since much of the area was swept away in 2010. It was also hit by floods in 2015 and again in 2020.

Pakistan's Punjab province has been hit hard by flooding in the current monsoon season, with rescuers evacuating tens of thousands from flooded areas over the past three weeks.

Operations were expanded last week when the Sutlej River started overflowing, inundating several districts, with most of the evacuations took place in the districts of Bahawalpur and Kasur.

Chaudhry Mazhar Hussain, of the Punjab Disaster Management Authority, told The National that about 480 villages in Punjab experienced flooding so far in August.

“During relief operations, we have rescued 82,256 victims from flood-hit areas. We have also relocated 21,562 animals to safer areas from the floods, and 20 ambulances are working in the area to provide relief and medical assistance to the victims,” he added.

He said the districts of Bahawalnagar, Kasur, Okara, Pakpattan, Vehari, Lodhran and Bahawalpur were the worst affected.

Floods are common across Pakistan during monsoon season, which began in July and will continue until September.

Sidra Shahid, executive engineer of the Bahawalpur district's irrigation department, told The National that the flooding has become worse since India released excessive water into the Sutlej River to prevent its dams from flooding.

“India has constructed two dams on the river. Due to the release of water from their dams, the river started overflowing in Pakistan,” she said.

“This has occurred after a gap of three decades as earlier, India had released such a heavy inflow of water into the river in the year 1988.”

She said thousands of people had cultivated crops and set up homes near the river, and those areas have been affected by the floods.

Tarun Agarwal, deputy director of India's Bhakra Beas Management Board, told The National that massive rainfall in the Bhakra area led to flooding on the Indian side.

Bhakra is part of India’s Himachal Pradesh state and is home to a dam.

“We had to release water into Sutlej river since our dam in Bhakra became filled to capacity due to the flood,” Mr Aggarwal said.

'We are very anxious now'

Previously, Punjab had not witnessed floods for three decades, according to residents in its Bahawalpur district.

“In 1988, local people had marked the areas submerged by floodwater. This year, we have noticed that the water level has gone beyond the marks that were drawn in the area in 1988,” Jamshed Alam, a social activist in the area, told The National.

“My home is situated around a kilometre from the river. Our relatives, comprising about 50 households, lost their homes, now submerged, and they have arrived in my neighbourhood, where a camp has been set up for them.”

Mr Alam said he and his family are now concerned over more flooding.

“Authorities have warned us that floodwater may also reach my home. We are very anxious now,” he added.

Environmentalist Adil Zarif told The National that while excessive water flow from India is partly to blame for the flooding in Punjab, climate change is also playing a role in triggering floods in Pakistan and other countries.

“In Pakistan, there are 3,000 to 5,000 glaciers, and their melting causes floods during the monsoon season. We have a major problem of deforestation, which is one of the causes of climate change impacts,” he added.

He said the hilly areas like Chitral, Gilgit-Baltistan and others often face glacial lake outburst floods, or Glofs, which are caused when a dam containing a glacial lake fails.

Mr Alam said Pakistan should build small dams on the Sutlej River and other rivers as large dams are not eco-friendly.

“Large dams block water flow and this is not good,” he said. “Also, they cost a lot. But small dams cost less and their lifespan is also longer than large dams.”

Pakistan was ranked by the UN as the eighth most climate-vulnerable country in the world and the third most vulnerable in Asia, Mr Zarif said.

In the summer of 2022, massive floods killed 1,739 and affected 33 million people, causing $30 billion in damage.

On Friday, the UN children’s agency warned that an estimated four million children continue to need humanitarian aid.

Updated: August 30, 2023, 9:41 AM