In the last week of August, a monster monsoon caused floods across Pakistan, impacting over 33 million people, killing at least 1,300, and destroying crops.
There are lessons here for the rest of the Himalaya, including Nepal which suffered similar floods last year. While monsoon cloudbursts and glacial retreat caused by the climate crisis were factors in both disasters, urbanisation of flood plains and population growth magnified the human impact.
In August, Pakistan recorded national average rainfall 243% above normal, with Balochistan and Sindh receiving 600-700% more rain than usual.
“Unusually heavy rains fell over the Hindu Kush where heavy monsoon rains usually do not reach,” says Sher Muhammed, a glaciologist at the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
Earlier, Pakistan experienced a prolonged heatwave which likely accelerated glacial melt and increased river flows. The Himalaya-Hindu Kush is the largest repository of glacial ice outside the polar regions.
The floods struck prior to the harvesting stage of key crops, including cotton, rice and sugar cane. In Sindh, flood waters inundated over 2.5 million hectares of farms, resulting in losses estimated at $1.3 billion. Pakistan now faces an unprecedented food security crisis.
The poor and the already marginalised — whose livelihoods depend on agriculture, forestry, and fishing – were disproportionately impacted by the floods. It is necessary to ask: What does the world owe Pakistan as these super floods expose numerous gaps such as food insecurity, inflation, and water-borne illness?
While the contribution of Himalayan countries to global greenhouse gas emissions is miniscule, they bear the worst effects of climate change. Pakistan and Nepal rank in the top ten most vulnerable countries in the Global Climate Risk Index.
Pakistan’s flood is therefore another wakeup call to meet global government commitments to climate justice funds. This is likely to be a significant point of discussion at the upcoming COP27 in November in Egypt.
Pakistan’s emergency was so serious that UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited the flood-hit areas this week. “Pakistan needs urgent financial support. This is not a question of solidarity or generosity. It is a question of justice.”
Although the Pakistan government initially said one-third of the country was underwater, independent analysts scaled it down to 10%. Whatever the extent, Pakistan’s leading climate scientist, Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, points to a range of human-induced factors.
“We cannot place our finger on just climate change as the main reason for an increase in devastation from floods,” Sheikh told The Third Pole. “Climate change is a threat multiplier, but most of the losses are often actually due to poor governance and a weak economy.”
Scientists also say last year’s floods across Central Nepal were triggered by 300mm of rain that fell overnight. The downpour also brought down moraines loosened by melting permafrost in the mountains upstream. The $700 million Melamchi project, a dozen hydropower plants, bridges and roads were damaged by the debris flows.
It is convenient for governments to put all the blame on climate change for water-induced disasters. But the human and economic toll of floods are magnified by drainage obstruction, poorly planned infrastructure, and river extraction.
Future flood risk in Pakistan, Nepal and India can be reduced if there is better preparedness and proper planning before next year’s monsoon. Otherwise what happened in Pakistan is sure to repeat itself many times in the Himalaya as the impact of the climate emergency starts being felt even more acutely.
Read also: Climate change only one factor in Pakistan flood, Nepali Times
Nicole McCloskey is a Fulbright grantee with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).