The Chaotic, Erratic MonsoonNo comments
When the waters of the River Swat, swollen from unprecedented torrential rains that fell over the Hindu Kush region in Pakistan burst their banks several weeks ago, the villagers of Charsadda District near Peshawar barely had time to escape from their homes. There was no modern early warning system in place but community leaders, hearing of the flooding upstream in the valley of Swat, quickly warned their neighbours about imminent flash flooding and so many lives were saved.
“This kind of flooding has not happened in this region since 1929”, says Saleem Ullah from the UNDP Pakistan office who hails from Charsadda, one of the worst affected districts in the current flooding. The UN says the disaster has left up to four million people homeless in Pakistan. Around 14 million have been affected and over 1,600 people are feared dead. This area was already reeling from the effects of the recent militancy in Swat, when thousands of people fled here from the battles between the Taliban and the Pakistan army. The internally displaced persons or IDPs had only just returned to their homes in Swat once the Taliban had been chased out, when this new disaster struck. “The people no longer appear to have the capacity to handle this disaster”, says Saleem Ullah. “Their resilience has been eroded”.
There is more bad news in the offing. The Met Office has predicted heavy rains in the coming weeks and says the monsoon system currently prevailing over the country might last until the first week of September. Rains in Gilgit-Baltistan in the mountainous north of the country have also swept away hundreds of homes and bridges. The Indus River weaves down from Gilgit-Baltistan into Khyber Pukhtunkwa province (formerly known as the North West Frontier Province) before heading south into the Punjab. The River Swat feeds into the River Kabul which in turn meets the Indus in a place called Attock on the border with the Punjab. Massive amounts of flood water have by now caused havoc in southern Punjab and have entered the southern province of Sindh. Widespread flooding is now occurring alongside the Indus as it flattens out before meeting the Arabian Sea.
Although it is impossible to say categorically that the current flooding is a result of climate change, experts are saying that we can expect to see more extreme and intense weather events in the near future.
“This was not a unique event. It can happen again given the timing and availability of moisture. What happened is that a cooler, westerly system over the north of the country interacted with hot, moisture-laden winds from the east and caused a series of cloud bursts”, explains Dr Qamrul Zaman Chaudhry, head of the Met Office in Islamabad. “Extreme weather events are on the rise and their intensity is also increasing. In the last six months alone Pakistan has been hit by a severe cyclone and now these massive floods”.
A Task Force on Climate Change was set up by the Government in 2009 to advise on the impacts of climate change in the country. The Task Force finalized its report and handed it over to the Government in February. In the section entitled “Past and expected future climate changes over Pakistan” the report says: “It is projected that climate change will increase the variability of the monsoon rains and enhance the frequency and severity of extreme events such as floods and droughts”. Recommendations called for the “sufficient expansion of large reservoir capacity… and development of capacity to deal with disasters like floods”. There was also a call to expand the “meteorological monitoring stations in various parts of the country, in particular the northern mountainous areas”.
The report was quietly filed away and to date, Pakistan has no national climate change strategy. Neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, India and Nepal have all come up with climate change action plans that are now being implemented. According to Shafqat Kakakhel, a former UNEP official who served on the Task Force, “We can see how the monsoon is becoming more chaotic, erratic and unpredictable. Last year, it came late and there was less rainfall. So either it is coming too late or too soon or there is too much rain. What the country really needs are standard operating procedures for disaster risk reduction. In Bangladesh they have FM radios advising people about flooding and people know exactly where to run to for safety. We need to have plans right down to the district level”.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s government is receiving harsh criticism for its slow response to the disaster and his decision to travel abroad to Britain as the floods began. The floods have also raised concerns for the country’s internal security. Hundreds of roads and bridges have been destroyed, countless villages and farms have been inundated, crops destroyed and livestock lost. “I foresee terrible food shortages and disease breaking out”, says Jugnu Mohsin, the editor of The Friday Times, Pakistan’s influential English language weekly. “There has been a complete state failure – the state can’t come to the rescue of the people. Aside from that, I am infuriated by the irresponsible use of resources and the neglect of the environment by the industrialized world whose actions have caused climate change. We are suffering today because of their carelessness and callousness – and it looks like they are still not willing to do anything about it (cutting carbon emissions)”.
The disaster has also been made worse by the rapid growth in Pakistan’s population and the scramble for land for housing in towns and villages. People increased their risk by building homes in dry river beds or too close to the rivers. “There has been a lot of bad planning and management” explains Ali Sheikh of LEAD-Pakistan, an NGO based in Islamabad. “Our population has just grown too fast. Adaptation is the key. We need better urban planning, we need to protect our infrastructure and we need to install early warning systems which are community-based. We also need to preserve our natural ecosystems where we can”.
Without trees and thick vegetation to slow down the water flow, the flooding took on greater intensity. “If you don’t stop the water it will go at a greater speed”, points out Shafqat Kakakhel. “Deforestation is a big problem in Pakistan”. Extensive deforestation in the country’s conifer forests started on a large scale in the 1990s when roads were built into remote mountain areas. Today, there is a clear nexus between the notorious timber mafia which operates in the north of the country and the Taliban. Wherever the Taliban grabbed power (as they did in Swat and Waziristan), protected forests were cut down and exploited with no regards to the consequences. During the massive earthquake that struck Pakistan’s north in 2005, most of the damage was done by landslides caused by deforestation. Although a ban on logging is now in place, trees continue to be cut and sold to contractors who work for the timber mafia. This mafia gets rich while the forest communities remain impoverished.
However, Saleem Ullah from the UNDP, who is also a trained forester from the Pakistan Forest Institute in Peshawar, says that heavy forest cover would not have prevented the current flooding. “Perhaps it would have reduced it by 20% or so, but there was just too much rain. One or two heavy cloudbursts are enough to cause a local flash flood – this time there were as many as a dozen cloudbursts in a row”. It was a unique phenomenon but one that can happen again given the increasing unpredictability and extreme variability of the climate. For the people of Charsadda, the nightmare continues – there are three more weeks to go before the rains subside. “I don’t know how much more they can take”, says Saleem Ullah. “They can only pray for God’s mercy”.
Editor’s note: Rina Saeed Khan, a Pakistani CCMP fellow, wrote this report on the floods in the early days of the crisis.