Flood-stricken Pakistan seeks to improve weather forecasts

by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio | @saleemzeal | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 5 October 2012 00:15 GMT
As rainfall extremes become an increasingly severe problem, Pakistan is seeking new technology to help it cope

JACOBABAD, Pakistan (AlertNet) -  Ghulam Qadir suffered a heart attack when he saw the rushing floodwaters swamping the rice crop he had been about to harvest in the village of Bakhshapur.

“My father crashed to the ground in agony when he saw the damage to his 22 acres (8.9 hectares) of rice,” said Qadir’s 21-year-old son Bilal Hussain. “His life was saved by quick medical attention, but doctors say it will take months for him to recover from the shock.”

Qadir, 49, is one of about 4.8 million people affected by the monsoon rains - the heaviest for more than a century - that lashed the country in the first two weeks of September, killing more than 420 people, injuring nearly 3,000 and devastating 2.2 million acres (890,000 hectares) of crops.

The widespread flooding, which hit Pakistan for a third successive year, has left some 350,000 people in temporary camps, most of them without tents, safe sanitation or clean drinking water, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

Pakistani meteorologists say climate change is making the annual monsoon rains increasingly erratic and hard to predict. In response, government agencies are using aid from Japan and international organisations to acquire advanced weather forecasting technology to improve their forecasts.

Rice, cotton, sugar and vegetable crops have been damaged or lost and transport disrupted, reducing supplies to local food markets and pushing up prices by as much as 150 percent.  NDMA officials say the rain and flooding damaged some 400,000 houses in 15,500 villages.  

Government and overseas aid has been slow and patchy, local officials say, lengthening the time it will take to make good damage to infrastructure, property, crops and livestock estimated at 250 billion rupees ($37 million).

Families, hit by repeated disasters, say they are running out of resources to recover.

“Before the torrential rains … which sent water pouring down the hillside and flooding our village, my rice saplings were thirsting for water. Now they are under waist-deep floods,”  Qadir, lying on a wooden cot in a makeshift relief camp outside his village, told AlertNet.

“I have been reduced to poverty, my two buffaloes have died, my wife and children have been hungry for days. They have no clothes,” said Qadir, tears trickling down his wrinkled cheeks.   “It would have been better to die than to see my family hungry and helpless.”

COSTLY FLOOD DAMAGE

Across Pakistan, devastating floods in 2010 caused crop and other infrastructure damage amounting to over 800 billion rupees ($84 million), while floods in 2011 cost the national economy an estimated 600 billion rupees ($63 million), according to the federal finance ministry.

This year’s monsoon rain was even more intense in some places. The Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) in Islamabad said that on Sept. 11 Jacobabad district had 380 mm (15 inches) of rain in 24 hours, the heaviest downpour for more than a century.

In total, Jacobabad had nearly 500 mm of rain in the first two weeks of September, compared with an average of 83 mm in a whole year. More than 70 percent of the district’s annual rainfall comes during August and September.

“The average rainfall in Jacobabad district is usually about 11 mm in September, but the record-breaking rainfall (this September) is a real shock for us that clearly signals how erratic monsoon rains in Pakistan have become over the last few years due to climate change,” said PMD Director Muhammad Hanif.

The monsoon rains were particularly heavy in parts of southern Punjab, northern Sindh and eastern Balochistan.

More than two weeks after the heaviest rain, floods were still waist-deep in large swathes of Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab, with many villages standing out like islands. Malaria, typhoid, diarrhoea, and skin and abdominal diseases have affected many local people. 

There has been only a lukewarm response to demands for water to be drained from the flooded areas, local officials say.

“I have apprised the Sindh government of the dangerous situation, but our relief department is unable to respond adequately because of non-release of funds for arranging adequate food, shelter, medicines, mosquito nets and water pumping machines to drain out stagnating rainwater,” said Haleem Adil, relief minister for Sindh province.

Pakistan’s summer monsoon season usually starts in the first week of July and lasts until the end of September, leaving summer crops ready to be harvested by mid-October.

“Heavy rainfall in September is quite rare in the western sub-continent, especially in Pakistan, where usually the intensity of rain starts to weaken during the first half of September. But since 2010, the country has experienced unusually widespread rainfall, apparently due to changing climate,” said Ghulam Rasul, a senior weather scientist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department.

On June 10 this year, the PMD predicted 15 percent above-normal monsoon rainfall. But in an advisory on August 1, PMD Director-General Arif Mahmood said Pakistan would have 40 percent below average rainfall during the monsoon spell because of unexpected changes in weather patterns.  

“Although we had predicted 15 percent above-normal monsoon rains this year, the sudden popping up of the  El Nino phenomenon led to drought-like conditions in Pakistan, causing 20 percent below normal rains in the upper parts of the country and 40 percent below normal rainfall in southern parts,” he told AlertNet.

However, the department said in a September 2 forecast that the monsoon would be very active for the next two weeks.

NEW TECHNOLOGY

Weather scientists and meteorologists at the department say accurate forecasting of (extreme) weather events has become a daunting task.

Mahmood said Japan recently agreed to give Pakistan 1.75 billion rupees ($18 million) worth of advanced weather forecasting and early warning technology, which will improve its ability to issue timely weather forecasts and cope with the impact of climate change.

In another development, the PMD and the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED), an international humanitarian organization, have signed a framework for cooperation to implement a Geographic Information Service (GIS)-enabled meteorological information system. This will help Pakistan to take rapid action to reduce the damage in areas prone to natural disasters, Mahmood said.

The department began to improve its weather forecasting systems after the 2010 floods, Mahmood said.

“The PMD managed to improve its forecasting capability from 3-5 days to 7-10 days with a lead time of 3-4 days before the occurrence of rainfall,” he told AlertNet. As a result it had been able to give “accurate and timely” forecasts of the fast-changing weather patterns during this year’s monsoon season.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change, development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan.

 

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