One of the most flood-ravaged districts of Pakistan would not be under water today if flood management recommendations had not been overruled at the last moment by powerful political interests, according to senior officials here.
In Muzaffargarh, the deaths of 51 people, displacement of 1.5 million, and destruction of 337 schools could have been mostly avoided if water had been diverted onto land set aside as a flood basin. The basin is vacant except for fields of sugar cane and cotton grown there surreptitiously by feudal families of the elite.
Allegations of a nexus of interests between the feudal families, who evidently benefited from the decision, and senior bureaucrats charged with carrying out their orders have generated an outcry in the local media and are currently the subject of multiple investigations.
Similar stories emerging all over the country suggest that while nature sent the waters, powerful men directed some of the deluge. The allegations threaten already tenuous confidence in the Pakistani government, among both its own citizens and Western reconstruction donors.
"Most of the flood damage would simply not have occurred in Muzaffargarh district if the right side of the dam had been breached [in] time," says a senior town official, waving his arms around a map of the district. "You can say this was man-made." The official, fearing for his job, asked that his identity be withheld.
Possible corruption, say high-ranking Pakistani officials
Two high-ranking international officials involved in Pakistan's development said that possible corruption highlights the need for more serious anticorruption mechanisms as millions of aid dollars flow into the country. One confided that details of political tampering with flood protection systems are coming in from all over Pakistan.
The retired general in charge of Pakistan's disaster response, Nadeem Ahmed, says, "When people are traumatized, these stories get multiplied and too magnified. Maybe some of them are true, maybe some of them are not true. But this is what we hear across the board wherever these inundations have happened."
He added that a proper national inquiry should be done but that it wasn't an issue of management: "More than the governance issue, this was a total mismatch between the nature of the disaster and the response assets that we had. We were just overwhelmed."
In Muzaffargarh, however, multiple local officials still insist this was a "man-made" catastrophe.
What the dam engineers say
In a long interview with five dam engineers entrusted with the upkeep of the Taunsa Barrage, the engineers reiterated that belief. "This is nothing more than a political game, but we aren't hopeful the truth will come out," said one engineer.
One of only two officials willing to criticize the government on the record is Asrar ul-Haq, chief engineer of the Irrigation & Power Department whose office is located at the provincial capital of Lahore.
Mr. Haq said that breaching the right-hand side would have brought its own danger. But, he conceded: "In hindsight, the people of Muzaffargarh can rightly feel very, very miserable about this. The flooding in their area would have been far less severe [if the right bank had been breached]."
All along the Indus River lie floodgates known as barrages. The flood control plan for Punjab Province stipulates that if the water pressure behind any gate grows too large, the right bank should be breached with explosives. At Taunsa Barrage, the left wall protects Muzaffargarh district, home to 3.5 million people. The right wall protects a less populous district, with at least 17,000 acres of "pondage" land set aside to hold floodwaters.
On Aug. 2, as the Indus waters swelled perilously close to the known breaking point of the Taunsa Barrage, officials led by the Punjab secretary of irrigation made the decision not to breach the right bank. In the early hours of Aug. 3, the Indus burst through the left bank instead, inundating some 400,000 acres of the district.
Standing on the Taunsa Barrage, the contrast between the two areas cannot be clearer. The vast tracts of unharmed land, which fall in the neighboring district lie to the west, while the inundated Muzaffargarh district is to the east.
Many locals allege that two powerful families, the Hinjras and the Khosas, both from the PML-N party, which rules Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, illegally occupy the flood-basin area.
"They put pressure on the irrigation secretary and the district coordination officer," says Jamshed Dasti, a politician from an opposing party.
Workers on the land did not dispute the identity of their bosses. "Many of us villagers who work for the Hinjras cross the river each day to till the fields or graze the animals," Noman, a man traveling to the area on foot, added.
When asked about the land, Ahmad Yaar Hinjra, a member of the provincial government, denied the land was his. "Neither I nor any member of my family hold any land on the right-hand side of the barrage," he said, adding: "Who are these people who named me? Tell me their names. They are being used by my political enemies to ruin my name."
More striking still was the denial offered by Zulfiqar Khan Khosa, a former governor of Punjab who is known to have very close ties with the Sharif brothers – both Nawaz Sharif, the twice-former prime minister of Pakistan, and Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab's chief minister.
Documents suggest involvement, involvement denied
According to documents seen by the Monitor, Mr. Khosa, acting as a "senior adviser" to the Punjab government, signed off in June on flood-fighting plans prepared by the Irrigation & Power Department, where he was appraised of the annual preparations at each of the province's barrages. This was confirmed by the department secretary as well as junior officials.
The documents suggest that Khosa was at least familiar with the officials concerned in overseeing the Taunsa Barrage, particularly the secretary. However, when asked whether he had any dealings with the Irrigation & Power Department, Khosa angrily denied he was ever briefed on the plans, and claimed he did not know anyone in the department.
"That is not my concern, I was never briefed on any flood plans at any stage. It is all the concern of the irrigation minister," he said, referring to Raja Riaz Ahmad of the Pakistan Peoples Party, who so far has not been implicated in the investigation.
Asked why he chose to disregard the Taunsa Barrage's standard operation procedure of breaching section, Rab Nawaz, the Irrigation & Power Department secretary, offered that the front section of the barrage had not come under threat and therefore he had not felt an immediate need to breach the right section.
"The River Indus recently changed course here and it would not have made a difference if we had breached the right side at the specified places," he says, though he admits that the action plan was signed off in June 2010, barely two months before the disaster and not ordinarily long enough for a river to change course so dramatically.
His account of the river course is also disputed by local on-site engineers. "With 1 million cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water flowing, how was it impossible to breach the right side?" says one.
Local residents are now hoping for a favorable outcome by the three committees instituted to investigate the issue.
"Those responsible must be punished according to the law," says Naeem Khan, a local engineer who was contracted to do repair work on the barrage in 2005. "We know these misdeeds have occurred, and we are prepared to fight in court if we don't see justice."