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Climate Change Debate Rises with Pakistan Floods

by Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan - "If this is not God’s wrath, what is?" 40-year-old taxi driver Bakht Zada said of the massive floods in Pakistan that have swept away his life earnings.

Three weeks after unusually heavy rains began to pour on Jul. 12 – some areas received up to 300 millimetres in a 36-hour period – Pakistan’s floods have affected 14 million people and killed 1,600, apart from damaging huge swathes of agricultural land, the mainstay of the economy. Speaking to IPS from Madyan city in Swat district in north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Zada might pin the blame for Pakistan’s worst floods in 80 years on forces beyond humankind, but environment experts are debating whether they are linked to a much more earthly phenomenon – climate change.

Three weeks after unusually heavy rains began to pour on Jul. 12 – some areas received up to 300 millimetres in a 36-hour period – Pakistan’s floods have affected 14 million people and killed 1,600, apart from damaging huge swathes of agricultural land, the mainstay of the economy.

The government, international humanitarian agencies and local charities continue to grapple with the disaster, which first hit the north-western part of this South Asian country and is now affecting the Punjab and Sindh provinces. The United Nations has appealed for 459 million U.S. dollars, of which 175 million dollars has been pledged.

Against this backdrop, experts have been trying to make sense of recent instances of extreme weather phenomena. Apart from the floods here, floods in China killed more than 1,100 people, and drought, a heat wave and wildfires hit Russia, in signs that seem consistent with the warming of the planet due to enormous amounts of heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

"Global warming results in catastrophic weather events. The recent floods are a result of climate change, undoubtedly," insisted Simi Kamal, a geographer and water specialist.

"Above-normal temperatures in the Indian Ocean give rise to increased precipitation. And in the north of Pakistan, when moisture-riddled wind currents collide with the mountains and are pushed up into cooler altitudes, moisture is released in the form of cloud bursts," added Khalid Rashid, a mathematician and physicist who studies changes in global weather patterns. "This is what seems to have happened this year."

Others are cautious about making categorical conclusions about links to climate change, but agree that weather patterns have been changing, becoming more extreme and more unpredictable.

"Climate scientists cannot be certain whether the current floods are an extreme weather event of the current climate pattern or a change in it," said Ayub Qutub, an Islamabad-based specialist on water management.

Even R K Pachauri, chief of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says it would be scientifically incorrect to link any single set of events with human-induced climate change. But he agrees that there is enough evidence to show an increase in the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts and extreme precipitation events worldwide.

In fact, he told IPS: "The floods of the kind that hit Pakistan may become more frequent and more intense in the future in this and other parts of the world."

Danish Mustafa, a Pakistani water specialist who teaches geography at the King’s College in London, acknowledges that "rather unusual" monsoon patterns from the Arabian Sea are becoming more frequent.

Ejaz Ahmad, deputy director of the World Wildlife Fund Pakistan, links weather changes to "change in land use patterns, heavy deforestation in the northern part of Pakistan and the conflicts" rather than to climate change. Still, he agrees that there have been more "weird" weather events of late.

"Pakistan experienced a dry spell last March with hardly any rainfall and wheat production was seriously damaged. Then it rained in areas which do not come under the monsoon range such as Gilgit-Baltistan, Broghil,. Similarly, the frequency of cyclones has also increased," Ahmad explained. "A year ago we received the Yemyin cyclone and then this year we had the Phet cyclone. In the past, we would experience cyclones (only) in decades."

Kamala adds that rising temperatures help hasten the melting of water sources like the Himalayas, north of Pakistan, that are the world’s third largest repository of snow and ice. "Our region (South Asia) is among the climate change hotspots, and floods and droughts had been predicted by international experts," he pointed out.

Originating in the Tibetan plateau, the Himalayas also feeds the Indus River basin after turning south from India. The river, now swollen because of the floods, runs along Pakistan’s entire length before discharging into the Arabian Sea, a journey of some 3,180 kilometres.

"Global warming is going much faster, causing catastrophic weather events," explained Kamal. "I’m not sure if this can be stopped now. I’m not even sure if we can adapt to the change as quickly."

Already, Kamal says, Pakistan’s lack of preparedness has added to the toll of the floods. The Indus basin has always been prone to floods, prompting her to to ask: "Why are we always taken by surprise? Why don’t we build scenarios, and based on them plan ahead for floods?"

But Maurizio Giuliano, spokesman of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Islamabad, says some preparations were put in place by the Pakistani government or "the toll would have been much higher."

Still, there are lessons to be learned. "We need the telemetric system on the Indus rivers to function that also need to be extended to monitor flood waves in real time," suggestsed Mustafa. "The local-level capacity will have to be strengthened to be the first line of defence in providing flood protection and then relief. The distant central government cannot do it."

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