Learning from Pakistan's tsunami from the sky

by AlertNet correspondent | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 31 August 2010 11:37 GMT

By Rina Saeed Khan

ISLAMABAD (AlertNet) - Up until the end of July, the rivers and reservoirs in Pakistan were running dry, the underground water table was receding fast and there was widespread talk of massive water shortages in the country.

Then the rains arrived, providing relief - which soon turned to horror as massive amounts of rain fell from the sky. In the high mountain valley of Hunza, on the border with China, the local weather office recorded two years worth of rain in just five days.

"A cloud forest can absorb this amount of rainfall, but these mountains have shallow top soil and the steepest gradients. This triggered landslides and flash floods," notes environmentalist Mehjabeen Habib, who was in Hunza at the time.

The torrential rainwater rushed into the ravines and river gorges, causing streams to flood into villages. The run off from these high mountains feeds into the Indus River and its tributaries. Over the years, the river has been tamed by the building of barrages and dams.

But these unprecedented rains have caused the Indus to roar back to life.

The flooding caught everyone by surprise - and today, from the mountains to the sea, the 15th longest river in the world has left a wake of destruction as it overflows its banks. Pakistan might be a fractured, divided society but today the country is united from north to south in its suffering.

And the floods may be just the start of Pakistan's problems. Climate experts believe the coming years will bring more such extreme and intense weather events, and not just in Pakistan.

Russia this year has seen devastating drought, wildfires and crop failure. China has seen billions of dollars of damage from flooding. Temperatures have hit record levels in a variety of countries around the globe, including the United States and Canada.


"This was not a unique event. It can happen again, given the timing and availability of moisture," explains Qamrul Zaman Chaudhry, head of the government weather 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," he notes.

The weather office in Islamabad predicts the monsoon currently prevailing over the country will last until the first week of September. The floods have now reached the Indus Delta near the Arabian Sea, breaking embankments and submerging towns and villages alongside the river.

Thousands of people are camped out in the open on high ground under the scorching sun - clutching all that remains of their belongings.

"These people are completely reliant on food being handed out by the local NGOs and government. There is a mad rush for the aid when it does arrive and some families don't get anything. The government is not releasing the figures but many old people and young children are dying as we speak," says Rafique Junejo, an activist from Jamshoro, in Sindh, who works for Participatory Efforts for Healthy Environment (PEHE), a local NGO.

It is estimated that around 20 million people have been affected by the floods.

There are growing fears that this year's flooding may not be a once-in-80-years event, potentially leaving the country with little time to recover from such a massive disaster, notes Ishfaq Ahmed, who was responsible for initiating Pakistan's first centre to study the impacts of climate change, the Global Change Impacts Study Centre, set up in Islamabad in 2003, and who has co-chaired a national task force on climate change to advise the government.

"This climate disaster is not only of high intensity but has been of long duration. The climate scientists are speculating that upper atmospheric jet streams can be hindered by warming waves and slowed down. This has regulated longer and intensive extreme events Â? our floods, wild fires in Russia and rain and mudslides in North West China. Such extreme events may not remain rare but become frequent," he warns.

According to Canadian glaciologist Ken Hewitt, who was in Pakistan when the deluge began, "Right up to the time of the first heavy rains, official and popular reports were preoccupied with water shortages. You have to wonder how far this caught managers on the wrong foot? It's a similar mind-set to the one that misread what is happening to the glaciers in the upper Indus Basin."

Hewitt has been studying the glaciers in the Karakoram mountain range for several years now and his investigations reveal that the big glaciers like Baltoro are actually growing and not receding as is the popular perception.


Hewitt agrees, however, that Pakistan may well be troubled by more extreme weather fluctuations in coming years. Whether those turn into disasters depends on preparedness, he says, noting that "most loss of life and much of the property damage can be prevented, and is prevented where safety and disaster preparedness are a priority."

Government and development officials say they are working toward a better level of preparation for more extreme weather events.

"Disaster preparedness has to reach right down to the grass roots level and become mainstreamed in the development process," says Saleemullah, a UN Development Programme official who works closely with PakistanÂ?s Ministry of Environment. "Land use planning is much needed and we have to control the encroachments on our rivers for the larger interest of our people."

The Indus River, he explains, is one gigantic water shed and has to be managed as one from the mountains to the sea.

"There are many lessons to be learned from this disaster," he says, including that reforestation may not be enough to help stop such flooding in the future. Saleemullah, who is also a trained forester from the Pakistan Forest Institute in Peshawar, says heavy forest cover would not have prevented the current flooding.

"Perhaps it would have reduced it by 20 percent or so, but there was just too much rain. One or two heavy cloud bursts are enough to cause a local flash flood - but this time there were as many as a dozen cloud bursts in a row. It was like a tsunami had hit Khyber Pukhtunkwa province."


Pervaiz Amir, who also served on Pakistan's task force on climate change, says the country will soon need to make important decisions on what should Â? and should not Â? be rebuilt.

"If floods are coming with even higher intensity in the future, glaciers melting at unprecedented rates, coastlines shrinking due to sea rise - how much do we want to rebuild? Who will decide the priority of rebuilding and resettlement? We need to sit back, take a deep breath and be highly selective what we will build and how," he insists.

He would like to see an action plan prepared with the input of residents of every province. To date, Pakistan has no national climate change strategy, although a report was prepared by the task force.

"Pakistan cannot continue to resettle people in the same places and bear the cost, knowing well that the probability of these areas being destroyed again is very real," he warns.

The last time such massive flooding hit the country was back in 1929, when far fewer people lived in the region. Since then, wetlands have been drained to make room for farmland and the traditional floodplains of the Indus are now home to villages.

The riverside forests that acted as natural flood barriers in the south have disappeared, and accumulated silt from the dams and barrages has made the river bed shallow.

The changes are one reason Pakistan is so severely affected by the current "super flood," experts say. Learning from what has happened and finding ways to intelligently build back will be key to easing the damage from future severe weather, they say.

"I think this flood will prove to be a turning point in our history. It is a major nation building exercise," Saleemullah says. "It will be difficult but we are a resilient nation."

Rina Saeed Khan is a Lahore-based freelance journalist who specializes in climate change issues.

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