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Pakistan: A Climate Disaster Case Study

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 6:18 AM GMT on August 17, 2010

Pakistan: A case study

What is happening in Pakistan cannot be described in a single word – like disaster or catastrophe. We are watching a combination of climate, weather, population, societal capacity, and geopolitics whose scope and ramifications are far beyond a “historic flood.”

I do not have any special insight, but I do have a special interest. My youngest sister Elizabeth is in Peshawar on the front line of the flood. She is the “friend” that Jeff Masters' referred to in his blog on August 10, 2010. (As picked up in the NYTimes.) And with this personal interest, I find myself digging around sources of local Pakistani news. What we are watching has all of the elements of climate disaster of the type that is predicted to be more common in the future. Let’s deconstruct this.

Figure 1. Image of the Pakistan flood catastrophe of 2010, courtesy of the Pakistan Meteorology Department.

Climate and climate change: The weather that has brought all of the rain to Pakistan (and India and China) is associated with the South Asian Monsoon (old big (> 10 MB) Rood presentation). This is the flow of air from the Indian Ocean into South Asia with large amounts of rain released when the air flows up the high topography that defines Central Asia. In Pakistan it is often what is called the northwest extension of the monsoon, which happens later in the season than the monsoonal flow that brings rain to South India. What is happening, and it is still going on, is an extreme event of an important and well described element of the Earth’s climate. From the point of view of meteorological measurements, this year’s rains and floods might be “historic” in the sense of being largest. I will let those who are more familiar with records argue that point; it does not really matter. (I am preempting any consideration of any relevance of the statement “but there was a big event like this in 18xx as described by, say, Charles Napier.”)

The prediction of “more extreme weather” is part of the portfolio of events associated with the predictions of global warming. Warmer ocean, warmer air, more water in the air – it still gets cold as it flows up the mountain and it rains. So the getting-to-be-old scientific hedge of “this is consistent with the predictions of global warming” is true.

Can we attribute this particular event to global warming? Probably not, but let’s think about it. One of the papers in my collection of important papers is one by P . Frich. This paper talks about indices that measure climate extremes and sets out the arguments about seeing not one isolated extreme, but a whole set of extremes. This taken in concert with changes in the average (a trend) and more and more extremes as time goes by, leads to a situation where it is extremely unlikely that all of the extreme events can just be normal chance. Look at the extreme events – first the drought and fires in Russia, perhaps the heat in the eastern U.S., add in the cool warm season in Southern California (to be replaced by extreme heat), we are seeing coherent behavior that is, again, consistent with the predictions of global warming. (See Peter Stott.)

Attribution of the 2010 monsoon and flood to “global warming” will be left to far more sophisticated arguments and time. We see here an extreme climate event, hard to ascribe this to “weather,” in a place with highly vulnerable people, in a country with low “resilience” to such an event. (What country could respond to 20% of its surface being flooded and 20,000,000 people displaced?) This type of event will occur again, whether or not this particular event is attributed to global warming. With global warming, they will occur more frequently, perhaps be more extreme. Pakistan will need to rebuild, to redevelop, to develop, and the smart redevelopment will realize that these events will happen again, and build in extra because it will happen more often.

Pakistan: I am not an expert on Pakistan. Last year my niece Claire Snell-Rood recommended a book “Empires of the Indus,” which was written by Alice Albinia. Albinia traveled up the Indus, through the area that has been flooded, and areas that will soon be flooded. Pakistan came to be in 1947 when India was partitioned, a strategy of colonial powers that never seems to work out so well. Somewhere in the background was the idea that Pakistan was Muslim and India was Hindu and there were Sikhs in the region. (“Pakistan was born in the name of religion, and baptized in the blood of those who died trying to get there.” Albinia, p4) It is a country which was immediately in war with India, with both laying claim to some land, especially Kashmir. It is a country pieced together, it a region of ancient rivalries, and religious and political conflict. My point – as a nation Pakistan has been a “nation” for little more than 60 years; it has been a place of troubled politics; there has been building and development over the past 60 years, much of which has been washed away in the last 2 weeks or will be washed away in the next few weeks. (Destroyed Infrastructure) 60 years – that’s the amount of time that we think about investing, in our retirement, in our roads, in our power plants. It’s a number that reaches out and hits some one who thinks about how to respond to climate change, how to deal with “investments” of the scale of a lifetime, how to plan for “100 year events” happening every 20 years, every 5 years? 60 years is an amount of time that we think about.

Pakistan - a country which in the best of weather is at the center of U.S. national security interests. A country with nuclear weapons. A country that cannot maintain its security interests and respond to the flood. International instability associated with an extreme climate event that has direct consequences on U.S. security. This is the situation that my students always conclude will finally get the U.S. to pay attention to climate change and environmental security. (old blog 1, old blog 2)

We have, here, harsh, brutish reality - a fragile, geopolitically important country where lives, crops, and infrastructure have been washed away. A public health nightmare will follow. (link)

We have here a case study of a climate disaster.

This is an event which will raise all of the arguments – the issues of population, and development. The fact that if we had reduced CO2 emissions 5 years ago that it probably would not have mattered. The argument from the scientific study of the Earth’s climate is that we will have more of these events; warming is already built into the system. If we reduce our emissions, then maybe we will responsibly reduce these events for our grandchildren – reduce the cost. It is imperative that we start to build adaptive capacity. In our efforts to develop and maintain and sustain our infrastructure, consider what extreme climate events will mean.

It is too early to tie up the loose ends here. We are in the middle of these events, and we are just beginning to realize the consequences. Parroting the words of Molly Kinder providing aid to Pakistan it is a moral imperative, a humanitarian imperative, and a security imperative.

Here once again are some places that Elizabeth has recommended for the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan.

Doctors Without Borders

The International Red Cross

MERLIN medical relief charity

The mobile giving service mGive allows one to text the word "SWAT" to 50555. The text will result in a $10 donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Pakistan Flood Relief Effort.

U.S. State Department Recommended Charities

Elizabeth says that it is better to send money to the organizations doing the relief work than to try to organize shipments of goods. It's hard to get stuff there , even if you do know how.

And here is

Faceted Search of Blogs at climateknowledge.org


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.