Changing Monsoon Pattern and Flood Preparation in Pakistan

The following article was submitted for publication on November 13, 2017 to Herald Pakistan. It was part of PPLDM’s effort to sensitize the government of Pakistan. Herald declined the piece with the message that it would have published it if it was submitted in September. Fortunately, the government of Pakistan was moved. It held a seminar on January 12, 2018, (within two months of PPLDM’s effort), to address the matter of changing pattern of monsoon in 2017.

People led disaster management seems to work!

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The following piece is authored by Shahzeb Khan, co-founder and director at PPLDM. Khan is an avid advocate for climate change policy. Shahzeb Khan is also an environment activist. He is the author of the upcoming book titled ‘Pakistan’s Multi-Hazard Risk Analysis.’ The book is aimed at sensitizing Pakistan’s people to the natural disaster risks they face and motivating them to think about disaster management innovatively.

Flooding is a frequent occurrence and a major hazard in Pakistan. Lately, the hazard has become much greater. Pakistan was used to a sort of regularity in floods caused by summer monsoon, whereby floods occurred once every few years and were never very big. Eight years ago, a new phase in Pakistan’s monsoon climate set in. It is a tremendous onset, rapid and without any precedent.

In July 2010, monsoon rains gained in strength rapidly through the month. They soon became much heavier than normal, until, at the end of July, they became the heaviest rainfall on record in Pakistan. The downpour, which occurred mostly in Pakistan’s mountainous northwest, caused massive flash floods that devastated the region.  The floods moved down the mountains towards the Indus River at the same time the heavy rainfall began over Punjab as well. By August, half a million people were displaced. The rainfall grew heavier as the month progressed while the entire Indus swelled and flooded vast areas of Pakistan until, in late August, one-fifth of the country was flooded. By late September, floodwaters began to recede, a process that was completed not before March 2011. 20 million people were affected by this massive disaster. The official death toll (always conservative) is 1,800.

This flood was the biggest ever in Pakistan’s recorded history. The disaster was truly unprecedented in many ways. Many people suggested it was the result of climate change. But the more pressing question at the time was whether it was a one-time aberration or the start of a change in Pakistan’s monsoon.

The answer began to painfully unravel itself the next year, in 2011. At first, monsoon rainfall was lower than normal, but it started to be higher in mid-August and quickly led to flooding. This time, rainfall was concentrated in the south of Pakistan, impacting mostly Sindh. By September, the flooding increased until it reached an enormous extent, not as big as last year’s but still a giant among floods in Pakistan. Reportedly, more than nine million people were affected and around 520 were killed.

The next year, the monsoon was calm until the beginning of September, when a monsoon front entered the country between the north and south. It rained throughout September, causing severe floods, that affected northern Sindh, southern Punjab, and eastern Balochistan. Around 4.8 million people were affected by the 2012 floods and 571 were killed. Floods in Sindh did not recede until March 2013.

That year, a spell of flooding began at the end of July and lasted till the middle of August, affecting wide areas of Pakistan, especially Punjab and Sindh. It is estimated that 1.5 million were affected and 234 people died in the floods of 2013.

In September 2014, severe rainfall in the north of the Indian Subcontinent caused massive flooding in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as Jammu and Kashmir. Floodwaters moved through the rivers of Indian Punjab and entered into Pakistani Punjab, causing severe flooding in the northern part of the Indus River System. The floods lasted until September 26. 376 people died in Pakistan and more than two and a half million were affected.

In July and August 2015, floods occurred which were not as severe as preceding years but were almost as widespread as the 2010 deluge, affecting northern Sindh, western Punjab, eastern Balochistan, and most of Khyber-Paktunkwha, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir. Chitral was the worst affected area. Across Pakistan, more than one and a half million people were affected and more than two hundred died.

In 2016, for the first time in six years, Pakistan was spared severe flooding. The country still did not escape tragedy, though. According to authorities, 153 people were killed in July and August in small flash floods in various places from Sindh to northern areas. Chitral, seeing direct rainfall, was once again badly affected.

So for seven years, Pakistan saw floods every monsoon season, most of them being severe calamities. The length of consecutive monsoon flooding, along with its extent, is truly unprecedented and it is likely that this era of yearly flooding has not ended.

Now that the 2017 summer monsoon season has passed by, let us look at what has transpired this rainy season in terms of flooding. Monsoon rainfall has been comparatively mild. But it has by no means been benevolent.

When 2017 summer monsoon started, the urgent question of what was going to happen was paid some attention to by the authorities. Major floods were not expected.  Summer monsoon began at the end of June with heavy rainfall all over the country, especially in Sindh. The rainfall quickly became debilitating in many areas and the casualty figures started to rise. Many, however, did not die in flooding but only in rain-related incidents like electrocution and building collapse. Regardless, flash floods also broke out in many places, although the nation was spared riverine flooding, except for low flood levels in several rivers such as the Chenab and the Jhelum. The rainfall was severe. By 4th July, NDMA reported a death toll of 43. Spates of heavy rainfall and associated flash flooding continued throughout the next two months, occurring far and wide across the nation in all provinces and territories. The death toll continued to rise.

Significant flooding occurred at the end of August 2017. Heavy rainfall in Sindh on the 30th and 31th of August caused severe flooding in Karachi that inundated most of the city. In those two days, as much rain fell on Karachi as usually fell in a month. It is estimated that forty people were killed, mostly due to drowning and electrocution. This was an urban flood caused by the city’s paving and the clogging of drains by trash.

The monsoon rainfall continued throughout September, though no further significant floods occurred. By early September, the NDMA declared that 157 people in Pakistan died from rainfall since the summer monsoon began. Not all of the deaths were from flooding, though. The summer monsoon stayed longer than it usually does, withdrawing from Pakistan only by October. It is now a month since then. Looking back, 2017 can be considered to be the eighth consecutive year that Pakistan has seen a severe monsoon season. It is clear that Pakistan’s summer monsoon climate is not the same as it used to be.

Looking forward, we need to prepare for the summer monsoon of 2018. This year’s summer monsoon flooding is the mildest we have seen in the eight-year period, a period in which the summer monsoons have been getting progressively less severe, except in 2014. However, if there is another lesson that we should learn from the past eight years, it is that nothing is certain. We now live in a climate that is different from what existed before 2010 and there is every reason to expect that we are not going back. In fact, the monsoon climate is different in a wide variety of ways. Since 2010, the monsoons have been behaving differently than they did before 2010 in many ways.

In the past, Pakistan was normally a dry country and India and Bangladesh were the primary destination for monsoon rainfall. Most of the rain that fell in Pakistan fell over the Punjab Basin, which easily absorbed water, suppressing flooding. But in recent times, scientists noticed that rainfall patterns were slowly shifting northwest towards the mountains of Pakistan.

In 2010, this migration took a great leap forward, with much of the massive amounts of water entering Pakistan pouring over the mountainous areas where they produced severe flash flooding that quickly traveled down the steep terrain into the Indus, causing it to swell. The monsoon currents went off their usual course so much that they reached areas they had never reached before. Thus, flooding occurred in some regions that never saw monsoon rainfall before, such as Gilgit-Baltistan, northern reaches of Khyber-Paktunkwha, and FATA. This was truly a monumental climatic revolution.

It was not repeated next year. Instead, in 2011, monsoon rainfall primarily occurred in the south of Pakistan. This was also unusual. Monsoon rains usually fall in the northern half of the country and only rarely does much of it fall over Sindh and Balochistan. Severe flooding caused by such rains certainly is rare. But a year after monsoon rains went far off their usual course in 2010, they did so again and in a completely different direction.

And they have continued to go where they usually did not go before. Rain fell around the center of the country in 2012 and in 2013, the latter year seeing rain reaching down to southern Sindh as well. In 2014, severe rainfall occurred in Kashmir once again, north of where heavy rain usually falls, and also affected Gilgit-Baltistan. In both 2015 and 2016, Chitral, one of those areas which never saw monsoon rains before 2010, again saw severe rains and suffered floods. And in 2017, much of the heavy rains in Pakistan have been falling over Sindh, which means that monsoon rainfall in the south is now officially common. These recent events demonstrate that even if monsoon rains are not as severe as they were from 2010 to 2014, the monsoon season is still not what it once was.

And perhaps it will never be. Most people believe that this change in the monsoon is the result of climate change, namely global warming (the warming of the atmosphere caused by our greenhouse gas emissions). Heavier rainfall is an obvious result of this, because warmer air can hold more moisture. But a warming world can also change the weather in many other ways such as by altering air movement. Many scientists believe that global warming will make the monsoon more erratic causing more floods and more droughts. It seems that global warming might also be responsible for the shifting of monsoon rains in Pakistan towards the northwest. Global warming seems to have had a sudden impact on Pakistan’s monsoon in 2010. What we are facing now may just be the harbinger of the future.

We need to deal with near future right now. Finding out what the future holds in store, trying to predict what the monsoons of the years ahead could bring, is important because preparation for floods is important. The best way to do this is to find out what is behind the floods of the last eight years. The core causes of the radical shifts in the monsoon in that time period must be understood. There has to be some reason why the monsoon started to change radically in 2010. Global warming cannot be the only cause, because the world did not suddenly warm up a great deal in the year before the floods of that season started. Scientists have devised many explanations for the individual flood years but it is still a mystery why the monsoon has changed, a mystery we are still far from unraveling. We need to embark on a quest to find this out and understand what is happening to the monsoon, in order for us to know what we need to face in the future.

Pakistan now has a very important task to engage in and that is to prepare for the summer monsoon of 2018. We do not know what the monsoon clouds will bring next year. Perhaps they will be more ferocious than 2010 and bring unprecedented floods once again. Perhaps they will be milder than the rains of this year and no flooding will occur. But we need to do all we can to ready ourselves for any eventuality. A major reason behind the devastating effects of the recent floods in Pakistan is our inadequate preparation and ability to respond. This must change. We need to do all we can to get an idea of what the monsoon season will bring. Weather forecasting is poor in Pakistan. We take little help from the outside world. We should turn more to weather forecasters around the world for flood prediction, such as Peter Webster at Georgia Tech, whose meteorological team forecasted the 2012 and 2013 floods but failed to get an adequate response from the Pakistani authorities. When the nation is forewarned of floods, it can take various measures such as evacuating people and emptying out reservoirs so floodwaters can be contained in them. Forecasting is the key to managing floods. We have a massively developed river control system but lack the knowledge of how to use it in case of a catastrophe. A key part of improving Pakistan’s flood forecasting capacity is to uncover the secrets of this current monsoon era.

Making Pakistan a flood-resilient nation is a vital task that we must try our best to perform in the years ahead of us.