Published On: Fri, May 19th, 2017

Massive flooding and the odd climate patterns

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Editorial

Considering the Global Climate Risk Index, in which Pakistan is one of the top ten countries of those most affected by extreme weather events, it may be time to rethink priorities. Droughts, famines, earthquakes and floods have all been experienced in the country within the last decade.

In the 2016 monsoon season, the PMD reported a 25 per cent increase in rains. Predictability is the first step, but disaster preparedness is the next, which requires the authorities to warn and safeguard residents before a calamity strike. Massive flooding displacing millions, prolonged heat waves with temperatures averaging above 38 degrees centigrade, ravaging hurricanes and deluges caused by excessive rainfall are common features in Pakistan now. Climate change affects have been becoming more evident and adverse with the passage of time and the irregular pattern of snowfall in Murree and the wider Galiyat area is yet another sign that, slowly and perhaps irreversibly, our climate is changing. This is the first time in 39 years that snow has fallen in this area in the month of April; March also saw unusually warm temperatures followed by heavy snowfall.

Add to this the fact that the region saw its hottest summer on record in 2016, and we have a picture of very odd climate patterns battering the hills. Pakistan is one of the country’s most vulnerable to climate change as it depends heavily on river flows that originate from mountain snowfall. Each monsoon season has been bringing with it unusual rainfall, and now winters and spring are also beginning to see bizarre weather patterns emerge.

With rising population already feeding on scarce resources, the climate change time bomb is ticking for the country. Temperatures in northern Pakistan have already been estimated to have increased by 1.9 degrees centigrade in the past century and resultantly, glacial cover in Pakistan is on the decline.

The latter is pivotal to feeding water to the Indus which through its tributaries irrigates the rest of the country. Year after year Pakistan faces huge economic costs in terms of damage to property and infrastructure, agricultural productivity losses and rebuilding and rehabilitation costs of those afflicted by environmental disasters.

As an agrarian country, there are grounds to be extremely concerned about the impact this situation will have on cropping cycles and patterns.

That concern needs to be felt at the highest levels of government. At the moment, the climate change ministry is mostly involved in public relations work. It should take the challenge more seriously; it needs to lead the effort to improve weather monitoring and the forecasting capabilities of the Met department, as well as coordinate with the provincial governments to develop and disseminate adaptive strategies for farmers. Hardly any research has been done in the country to look at what adaptive strategies might be available – such as new seed varieties that are more resistant to changing weather patterns. Far more also needs to be done to generate flood alerts and response plans, for which coordination with the local authorities is crucial. Pakistan is flying blind into a possible storm without making efforts along these lines. All manner of help is available from the international community, but thus far, nobody from the government, not even the climate change ministry, seems particularly interested beyond attending a few regional seminars. The ministry’s website shows only two books and two monographs published over a decade ago as its research output. Of the nine projects listed there, more than half were also from a decade ago. Signs of climate change are all around us now, sometimes coming in benign forms like a spring snowfall, and at other times as massive cloudbursts that cause floods and glacial lake outbursts. But each time our response is to muddle through and revert to business as usual once the skies clear.

Meanwhile experts call for averting disaster through preemptive measures. And in this backdrop, it is good to see that with the help of the Japanese government and Unesco, Pakistan is preparing itself to better predict and manage the annual floods it has been experiencing for the past few years. The Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources are establishing an early flood warning system that will help determine the propensity and intensity of flooding so as to take preventative measures in advance. This is a rare display of prudence by a state department but it is nonetheless commendable as the cycles of annual flooding, despite their predictability at this point, have caused unimaginable destruction to homes and lives as well as usurped funds that the country does not have to spare.

The annual disaster cycles in the country have impinged upon development; because where funds could have been applied to other sectors such as education, health, or urban development, these unexpected catastrophes have drained those resources. The first major flood arrived in 2010; gratefully, seven years later, we might have taken our first significant step towards mitigating damage that previously affected 30 million people and consumed $14 billion. Despite these high costs, support by the government for the PMD is negligible. The leadership remains disconnected from these tragedies, most likely because it cannot relate to the victims.

 

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