Why Pakistan Was Hit So Hard By Floods

After a spring of deadly heat waves, summer floods have killed more than 1,100 people in Pakistan. Since June, rains have washed away buildings, submerged homes and destroyed roads. One-third of the country is underwater.

Scientists can’t yet say exactly how climate change has shaped the disaster, but they know that global warming is sharply increasing the likelihood of extreme rain in the South Asia, home to a quarter of humanity. There is little doubt that it made this year’s monsoon season more destructive.

Today, I’ll talk about some of the climate factors in play and why Pakistan, a country that has done very little to cause global warming but is now among the most vulnerable to its effects, has been hit so hard.

Global warming and the monsoon

The South Asian summer monsoon is part of a regional weather pattern. Basically, winds tend to blow from the southwest from June through September. That onshore breeze brings wet weather. In normal times, that’s generally a good thing. Farmers all over the region count on monsoon rains for their crops.

But these are no longer normal times. Global warming means that water evaporates much faster out at sea. And, a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. So, monsoons risk bringing way too much rain.

Researchers will need time to conduct attribution studies to understand exactly what happened this summer, but Steven Clemens, a professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University, said the months of deluge in Pakistan are “super consistent with what we expect in the future” as the planet heats up.

This monsoon season, rainfall in Pakistan has been nearly three times the national average of the past 30 years, the country’s disaster agency said. In Sindh Province, which borders the Arabian Sea to the south, rainfall is nearly five times the average.

Why preparation and recovery are so hard

The challenge of preparing for more intense rains is complicated by persistent political instability in Pakistan. No prime minister has ever completed a full term in office. In April, former Prime Minister Imran Khan was forced out. This month, he was charged under antiterrorism laws amid a power struggle with the current leadership.

The country’s difficult economic situation also means there aren’t sufficient resources for adaptation projects. At one point this month, annual inflation was measured at 42.3 percent.

Madiha Afzal, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told me the economic and political turmoil shifted attention away from the heavy rainfall and delayed the government’s response.

“People weren’t focusing on that,” she said. “So things that should happen in a disaster, like getting the word out for people to evacuate from areas where there was going to be flooding, didn’t happen.”

The economic problems, Afzal said, are also likely to affect the government’s ability to shelter the displaced and rebuild what was destroyed. Agriculture is likely to take an especially big hit. According to World Bank data, the sector employs almost 40 percent of Pakistanis. Across the border in India, it accounts for close to half of all jobs.

The United States this month announced $1 million in aid to help Pakistan cope with disasters. And the country on Monday secured a $1.1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to avert an imminent default. But government officials in Pakistan estimate the damage of these floods alone will run over $10 billion.

It’s not just about money and political will, though.

Clemens told me models and the computers that run them can’t yet predict precisely when and where an extreme weather event will happen, or how a specific area will be affected. Getting adaptation projects right in this context won’t be easy.

The floods in Pakistan offered an example. A bridge that had been rebuilt 16 feet, or five meters, higher after it was destroyed during record flooding in 2010 was again inundated days ago.

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