Climate change and the floods in Pakistan

Experts are calling the devastating floods in Pakistan, a ‘wake-up call’ for the global community. The volume of rain that has fallen in Pakistan was unprecedented, creating the worst flooding seen in the country in at least a decade.

Floodwaters have transformed areas around the Indus River into swamps and at least a million homes have sustained some level of damage. Flash floods have displaced a staggering 33 million people, killing more than 1300 and injuring 3,500 between June and August. Around 5,500 shops, bridges and homes have been damaged.

Pakistan is home to around 221 million people. The majority of the population lives along the Indus River, which flows down from the Himalayas, through most of the country into the Arabian Sea at Karachi. According to the Pakistan Climate Minister, Sherry Rehman, around a third of the country is currently underwater.

Pakistan now has to deal with vast numbers of displaced people, broken infrastructure and crop failure leading to food shortages and possible famine. While domestic concerns in many Western countries have kept the developing tragedy off the top of the news bulletins, its implications for the entire planet can no longer be avoided.


Why is flooding so extreme in Pakistan this year? 

While some commentators have been quick to blame poverty and underdevelopment, the scale of flooding in the country would have overwhelmed even the most resilient of defences. That’s because Pakistan is at the frontline of climate change. Despite producing significantly less than 1% of global greenhouse gases its geography makes it particularly vulnerable to a warming climate.

Pakistan’s location places it at a point where two major weather systems meet. While one of these systems can cause high temperatures that lead to drought, the other system brings monsoon rains.

The majority of Pakistan’s population lives along the Indus River. During monsoon rains, this can swell and flood. While in a normal year flooding is expected, with communities adapting to cope with what can be an annual event, this year’s floods are like nothing experienced in living memory.


Climate change is a factor

Climate science is clear about the link between climate change and intense monsoons. Global warming makes air and sea temperatures rise. This leads to more evaporation, and warmer air retains more moisture, making monsoon rainfall more intense. It’s the same reason why periods of intense rainfall go hand in hand with hotter temperatures and longer periods of drought in Europe.

This year, Pakistan has seen unprecedented heatwaves, with the temperature reaching 50c (122f) in the city of Nawabshah earlier this year. A temperature at which human life begins to become untenable. Rising temperatures are also having other consequences in the region. 


Glacial ice melt

Pakistan is also home to more glacial ice than anywhere on the planet outside of the polar regions. Vast glaciers in Pakistan’s northern regions are melting rapidly, creating thousands of lakes. Currently, around 33 of these lakes are at risk of bursting, releasing millions of cubic metres of water and debris and putting millions of lives at risk.

The UN is looking to install early warning systems and is supporting the development of protective infrastructure. While this may help to reduce the loss of life, experts are warning that even wealthy countries with the most robust infrastructure would have been overwhelmed by the volume of rainfall seen in Pakistan.


A global response

While communities in the Indus Valley have lived in harmony with their environment for centuries, climate change is now threatening their future existence.

The Disaster Emergency Committee is leading the UK’s humanitarian response, but as well as meeting the immediate needs of people on the ground, the scenes from Pakistan should motivate all of us to work harder to develop more sustainable ways of living and working.

People with the smallest carbon footprint are at the sharp end so it’s down to those with the financial means and more historical responsibility to develop the solutions. 


A green revolution

As Britain led the global industrial revolution, setting in chain the human activity that has contributed to climate change, it can also lead the global green revolution to tackle it.

Forward-thinking, innovative cities like Birmingham have never been afraid to face up to sizeable challenges, and there are few bigger than climate change. As a truly global city with extensive cultural and community links with South Asia, the reality of climate change for people on the ground should motivate us to work harder to create a more sustainable future for our city and the world.

There is no time for delay. The work needs to start now.