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Pakistan Reader
Recurrent floods in Pakistan: What and Why

  Rohini Reenum

On 18 April, Dawn reported that the latest projections from the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) and multiple weather models suggest “a series of moderate to intense weather systems” till 29 April in the country. Similarly, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD in its forecast, projected rain, windstorms, thunderstorms, and a few hailstorms across most of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), Islamabad, Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan in the next 24 hours.This warning comes in the midst of continuous torrential rains accompanied by thunderstorms that have already caused landslides and urban flooding in various parts of the country alongside storm-related deaths creating a situation of emergency.Since 12 April, 60 people have died in the country due tolightning strikes and other storm-rela¬ted incidents.
 
Balochistan witnessed continuous torrential rains (and is expected to see more in the coming days) and urban flooding in Quetta prompting the government to impose “urban flood emergency” in the city. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, upper regions of the province received both heavy snowfall and heavy rain, the latter leading to “medium to high level flood” in the Kabul, Panjkora and Swat rivers.

1.How serious is the flood situation in Pakistan?
An editorial in Dawn titled “Caught unawares,” lamented that Pakistan has “once again been caught off-guard by the devastating impact of unseasonal and intense rains across its provinces” and attributed such “natural anomalies” to climate change. While it is true that extreme weather events in Pakistan are a recent phenomenon and can be linked to or is reflective of Climate Change, the country is no stranger to the recurrence of such events. As late as February 2024, Balochistan had witnessed “unusual” heavy rains due to a rain-producing system that had reached the country on 25 February and “severe downpours and windstorms” Gwadar, Jiwani, Sarbandan, and other regions of the province. Gwadar was the most affected with urban flooding and emergency was declared in the district. In March 2024, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had witnessed “devastating rains and snowfall” resulting in the death of 40 people, injury to 62 others, and damage to 80 houses. Gilgit-Baltistan was impacted by landslides in the same duration. These are examples just from the first quarter of 2024. It is important to point out that even if extreme weather events are a novelty in the country, Pakistan is well acquainted with the recurrence of floods.
An article in The Friday Times which documented the flood history of Pakistan reveals that since 1947, the country has witnessed 29 floods. “The first ever flood struck in 1950, followed by 1955, 1956, 1957, 1959, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1995 – and from 2010 onward, we have experienced it every year.” An article in Science Direct titled “Floods in Pakistan: A state-of-the-art review” has stated that between 1950 and 2011, Pakistan witnessed one flood every three years and approximately 21 “extreme floods” leading to a loss of  8887 human lives and “an indirect economic impact” of USD 19 billion.Between 1951 and 2020, owing to the floods, in total, the country lost 13,262 lives, 197,273 villages were damaged, which amounted to 616,558 square kilometers and the total loss suffered by the economy was PKR 39 billion.

The two most damaging floods in history were the 2010 “super floods” and the 2022 “monsoon floods.”The2010 floods caused by unprecedented monsoonsaffected 0.2 billion people in the country in which 1985 human lives were lost and a tangible loss of USD 9.7 billion was estimated. The intangible loss, however, is always hard to determine. The 2022 floods in which one-third of the country was submerged impacted 33 million people, killing 1,739. As per the government’s assessment report figures quoted in The Friday Times, the 2022 floods resulted in USD 14.9 billion of damage and USD 15.2 billion of economic loss. The figures mentioned above are tangible damages that can be measured. While intangible damages relating to impact on human development are difficult to ascertain and long-lasting. Given the sheer magnitude and multi-dimensional impact caused by floods, Pakistan can no longer afford to be caught unawares, as the editorial suggested.
 
2. How did Pakistan respond?
An editorial in Dawn has argued that Pakistan’s preparedness in dealing with unexpected extreme weather events is “perennially lacking.” The process has been reactive rather than proactive. The immediate responses are conveying warnings, declaring emergencies, bringing in the paramilitary and a focus on relief packages and compensation.
 
Referring to Pakistan’s performance in tackling recurrent monsoon floods, an article in The Friday Times lamented that “History has repeated itself, year after year, but we have not learnt from our past mistakes.” The article also highlighted other issues that have “exacerbated” the problem due to the government falling short of its responsibility: corruption, poor management of the nation's water resources, a lack of essential infrastructure, inadequate disaster preparedness, political prioritization, deforestation and land degradation, inadequate adaptation measures and lack of climate policy implementation.
 
3. Questions of Governance: What are the major issues?
First, Pakistan’s geography and changes in climate change. Pakistan’s precipitation rates are extremely variable due to its location. Climate Change, has increased the variability leading to further uncertainty. This means that unpredictability of the onset, duration and intensity of monsoon is going to be a fixed problem and the country will have to take it into account in its disaster preparedness plans and develop adequate early warning systems.
 
According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021 released by the German Watch, Pakistan ranks eighth among countries most affected by climate change and is the 7th most vulnerable country to climate change. Availability of information on disaster-risk and vulnerability, however, does not translate into effective policies.
 
Second, the recurring urban floods and inadequate urban planning. Intense precipitation in a short time, environmental degradation and lack of urban planning are the main factors driving the recurrence and intensity of urban floods. Continuous rainfall in short duration overwhelms a city’s drainage system and leads to inundation. Deforestation and loss of vegetation impact the soil’s water retention capacity adversely. Land use changes like occupation of flood plains and alteration of natural water courses are some causes. The 2020 Karachi urban floods were a case in point. The good news is that the problem of urban floods can be tackled by informed planning and implementation.
 
Third, economic challenges of disaster management. The impact of natural disasters like floods prove to be an additional burden on developing economies further affecting their capacity to invest in climate adaptation and climate mitigation options. This results in a vicious cycle of disaster occurrence and disaster management.
 
Given the certainty of uncertainty that Pakistan faces on this front, a proactive transformation towards climate change adaptive and resilient economy and society could help reduce the impacts in the future.
 

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