Crisis in Pakistan—how severe flooding underscores yet again the costs of climate change

Pakistan declared a national emergency after devastating floods, brought on by torrential rainfall, left one-third of the country submerged in water and more than 33 million—one in seven people—affected. Record rainfall ushered in what UN Secretary General, Antonio Guiterres, referred to as a “monsoon on steroids” during an address to world leaders. 

From June through August, Pakistan received 190% of its normal rainfall, which in July alone exceeded the total normal monsoon seasonal rainfall by 26%. As of Aug. 25, Pakistan experienced 375.4 mm of rainfall – 2.87 times higher than the national 30-year average of 130.8 mm. And on a regional level, excessive rainfall was 500% above average in the southern provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, according to reports from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Flooding caused $30 billion in damages to infrastructure and agriculture, alongside more than 1,600 deaths and 12,800 injuries.

Health infrastructure and disease outbreaks were an additional burden to flood impacts. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported damages to 1500 health facilities, shortages in health workers and health supplies, and new disease outbreaks including diarrheal diseases, skin infections, respiratory tract infections, malaria, dengue and more. 

To help address the human and infrastructural toll as well as meet calls for international support, the UN launched an appeal to raise $160 million to assist with relief efforts and allocated $3 million for their partners in Pakistan to respond to the floods. Individual countries have also shown support. The US government, for example, pledged $30 million in humanitarian assistance while Gulf states worked actively to support relief efforts.

As efforts shifted toward disaster management and relief, conversations on the how and why of extreme flooding arose, with many pointing toward the largest elephant in the global room—climate change.

The effects of climate change in Pakistan can be seen in the severity of the weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean alongside glacial melt, with the former playing a significant role in intense rainfall. 

The terms El Niño and La Niña refer to the two Pacific Ocean weather phenomena that oscillate ocean surface temperatures back and forth from cold to warm, generating weather changes across the globe. In the context of Pakistan floods, the effects of La Niña are important to consider. 

During the La Niña phase, higher than normal rainfall occurs in the areas of the western Pacific and tropics as a result of stronger trade winds that carry warm water westward at a high intensity causing water temperature to rise. This temperature increase releases warm air into the atmosphere, leading to heavy rain. Experts believe La Niña could have played a role in this year’s extreme rainfall in Pakistan because of its known impact on the monsoon period in the South Asia region and the likelihood of climate change increasing the severity of its effects. The La Niña event came despite hotter than normal temperatures in April.

Glacial melting is another significant climate threat to Pakistan. Pakistan is home to over 7,2000 glaciers which, with the onset of global warming, leaves the country susceptible to flooding while also negatively affecting its glacier dependent water supply. Though excessive rainfall is mainly behind the devastating flood, warming induced glacial melting spurred flash floods in Pakistan’s northern region causing further damage. The sheer magnitude of glacial ice surrounding Pakistan makes it one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. While they suffer more than most countries, Pakistan contributes to less than one percent of global CO2 emissions, the major factor behind global warming. 

The crisis unfolding in Pakistan is a tragedy beyond measure, yet it reminds us once again of how interconnected and extremely vulnerable the world is to climate change. With climate talks set to take place in November, the onus falls on all world leaders to make more progressive efforts to reduce global emissions and take a stand against climate change. Till then, Pakistan will remain a somber reminder of the toll faced by those most vulnerable to climate catastrophe.

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