A Dangerously Uncertain Summer Monsoon Lies Ahead

It is now the beginning of the 2018 summer monsoon season in Pakistan. It is a season in which the aridity that prevails in the country the rest of the year is halted for a few months. Air currents bring huge quantities of moisture from the Indian Ocean onto land to provide Pakistan with an abundance of rainfall. The monsoon relieves us from the heat and sun of summer and provides our nation with its lifeline.
But every time that Pakistanis await the monsoon rains, they do so with trepidation. The monsoon currents that sweep over the Indian Subcontinent in the summer are highly erratic and unreliable. In some years, they bring less rain than normal and cause drought. Other years, they bring heavier rainfall than normal and cause flooding. In fact, monsoon flooding is one of the most common natural disasters in Pakistan.
We have particular cause to be concerned this year. In recent times, the monsoon has been behaving differently, no doubt due to climate change. Right now, the threat of a dry spell looms over us. May and June saw severely hot weather across much of Pakistan, including heat waves in Sindh, where dozens of people died from heat-related causes. Despite the Monsoon rains starting in late June, dry conditions continued in many areas of the country. Most of the monsoon rainfall has occurred not in northern Punjab, where it usually does, but south, in the general area around Lahore, where they have not done much good for farmers. Now we have parched conditions so bad that the Tarbela Dam has reached dead level for the first time ever. Water levels in Mangla Dam are also dangerously low. It seems we are in real danger of a dry monsoon season, even drought, ahead.
At the same time, a monsoon bringing floods is also a big danger, as it has always been in the land of Pakistan throughout the ages. In fact, in recent years, that hazard has suddenly become much bigger. We have been in a period in which the monsoon rains have been more disastrous than ever. It all began 9 years ago in 2010. That was the year that Pakistan was struck by an unprecedented calamity, monsoon floods, that were mind-bogglingly huge. At their height in late August, they submerged a fifth of Pakistan. According to government estimates, 1,800 people died and 20 million were affected.
It was not just the amount of water involved which was unprecedented about the 2010 monsoon season. Rainclouds reached and flooded areas in Pakistan that never before in recorded history saw monsoon rainfall, such as FATA, northern Khyber-Paktunkwha, and Gilgit-Baltistan. Also, while monsoon clouds in Pakistan are usually 10,000 feet high, these reached as high as 40,000 feet. Everything about the monsoon basically changed. The sheer scale of this flood would not be repeated since, but the deluge was only the beginning of a series of yearly monsoon floods.
Gigantic monsoon floods struck Pakistan again in 2011, starting in mid-August, concentrated mostly in Sindh, which saw only riverine flooding in 2010 but which was now to be much more severely affected. It was as if the monsoon came to deal unfinished business from last year. Monsoon rainfall does not often occur in the south of Pakistan and rarely causes flooding. The rainfall in 2011 was the highest ever recorded in Sindh and so the resulting floods were also unprecedented. The toll is not very clear, but reportedly, 520 died and 9 million were affected. In 2012, severe monsoon flooding occurred again, caused by rains that fell in the middle of the country throughout the month of September, relatively late for the monsoon season. Northern Sindh, southern Punjab, and eastern Balochistan were covered in floods. The death toll was reportedly 571 and 4.8 million were affected. The three years of out-of-control monsoons combined were a huge calamity for Pakistan, a barrage of disasters that ravaged the nation. The worst had now passed, but the monsoon climate afterwards still did not get back to normal.
In 2013, flooding came in spates across wide areas of Pakistan, especially Punjab and Sindh, from the end of July to the middle of August. The toll is estimated at 1.5 million affected and 234 people dead.
In 2014, the monsoon season went along fine until early September, when severe rainfall broke out more up north of where it usually does in the subcontinent, affecting both India and Pakistan. In Pakistan, the rains caused flooding in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, again where rains never fell before 2010, and floodwaters moved through the rivers of Indian Punjab into Pakistan’s Punjab Province, wreaking major havoc until September 26. Two and a half million of the country’s denizens were affected and 367 died.
2015 was comparatively a mild year, but through July and August, there occurred flooding, that while not severe, had nearly the same unprecedented distribution of 2010, with northern Sindh, western Punjab, eastern Balochistan, most of Khyber-Paktunkwha, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir seeing inundation. Chitral, one of the parts of Pakistan newly introduced to the monsoon in 2010, was the most severely affected area. According to reports, one and a half million were affected across the nation and 238 died.
In 2016, finally, the nation was spared severe calamity, but tragedy still ensued from flooding. Small flash floods far and wide in the country in July and August reportedly killed 153 people. Chitral was once again badly affected.
So there were seven years of flood season after flood season in Pakistan, whereas before, monsoon floods usually come every few years. I took note of this phenomenon in a blog post I wrote after the 2017 monsoon season, Changing Monsoon Pattern and Flood Preparation in Pakistan (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2018/01/27/changing-monsoon-pattern-and-flood-preparation-in-pakistan/), and dealt with its possible implications. Not only is the land of Pakistan not known to have ever experienced flooding like the 2010 deluge, it never had so many consecutive years of monsoon flooding. Clearly, the 2010s is the decade of floods for Pakistan. The monsoon season behaved radically different from how it has always been and the occurrence of flooding skyrocketed. The important question is whether this is still the case. Will the era of floods that began in 2010 continue or are things getting back to normal?
Here, we first have to look at how the monsoon has been behaving lately, starting with what transpired last year, during the summer monsoon of 2017. Right from the beginning, late June, rainfall was persistently severe and flash floods ensued in many places, although riverine floods were too low to be of any consequence. Deaths were caused very quickly, with a reported death toll of 43 by July 5, according to NDMA. Only some of those deaths were due to flooding, as rain can be dangerous even if it does not submerge land. The situation continued for two months. Then, at the end of August, significant flooding occurred for the first time as a massive urban flood occurred in Karachi, where, on the 30th and 31th, as much rain fell as usually does in one month. 40 people were estimated to be killed because of that. Afterwards, there was a dry spell in Pakistan and heavy rains continued only across northern Pakistan for the next month. The monsoon rains ended rather late, at the beginning of October, by which time, they were estimated to have taken the lives of 157 people over the whole season.
Altogether, it was not a very mild monsoon season. But it continued a trend inherent since 2010. Each monsoon season produced less flooding in Pakistan than the one before it, with the exception of 2014, which saw more flooding than 2013. If the trend continues, we will barely suffer anything in 2018. 2017 may thus be the herald of a return to a calm climate. But as we are now two weeks into the 2018 monsoon season, let us look at how it has been so far.
The first monsoon rains began in late June and broke the heat spell, providing people with much needed relief. But the rains also quickly brought new problems. Like in 2017, 2018’s monsoon rainfall turned out to be severe early on, but with one big difference. Heavy rainfall occurred only in Punjab, particularly the eastern area around Lahore. In the rest of the country, rainfall was sparse. Starting in 2nd of July, two days of rainfall, amounting to eight inches, flooded streets in Lahore and caused the deaths of 15 people. According to sources, it was the heaviest rainfall Lahore saw since 1980. Monsoon rainfall also was unusually for this early a stage in the summer monsoon.
So there you have it. Our current monsoon season is already off to a wild start. It is already like the other years in our current decade in having rainfall of an unusual nature. If the rainfall has been so severe this early, then it is likely that there is much more to come in the months ahead. This is an urgent call for Pakistan and its people to be on alert for yet another season of damaging floods.
At the same time, rains were only unusually heavy in some areas. In most of Pakistan, they were very deficient. So it looks like Pakistan will be spared one disaster only to face another, water shortage, possibly even drought. Unlike floods, it has been quite some time since Pakistan suffered a monsoon drought, but after the monsoon has exerted itself so much since 2010, maybe it will now be taking a rest and afflicting us with a drought to cap off our string of flood disasters. Here is an even more troubling thought. Just as we suffered a series of floods, what if this is the beginning of a series of droughts?
It is widely feared that water shortages are going to be the norm in Pakistan’s future. There are many reasons for this. Pakistan’s rapidly growing population is the main one. But another major factor behind Pakistan’s water-insecure future is climate change. The monsoon is a very unstable system and severe disruptions to the global climate can easily cause it to deliver less water to Pakistan at certain times.
It looks like our “future,” in which water shortages and drought are greater hazards, has started already.
While we should be very wary of a water shortage in the current monsoon season, we should not be so complacent that flooding will be averted. Look at what happened before. It is actually getting to be a pattern nowadays that the summer monsoon is dry at first and brings very heavy rains in its later stages. This was particularly the case in 2011 and 2012. In 2011, before mid-August, monsoon rainfall was so low that a dry spell ensued. It prompted the authorities to open the gates wide to allow as much water to flow through as possible, which exacerbated the flooding that came when rainfall spiked. Maybe the weather is laying the same trap for us now.
The fact is, we need to be ready for any eventuality. I wrote about the need to be prepared for the 2018 summer monsoon in Changing Monsoon Patterns and Flood Preparation in Pakistan six months ago, and now the time has come. The monsoon season ahead is likely to bring any kind of hazard. We cannot be certain exactly what will happen, but we have to watch out, whether for heavy rains and floods wreaking havoc or dry spells and drought rendering people destitute. Perhaps even both could occur this monsoon season. It could be that monsoon rainfall will be concentrated in some areas or at some times, causing floods there or at those times, while drought will occur in other places or at other times.
We have just days to get ready, which is precious little time. The capacity to cope with floods and drought comes mainly from being prepared far in advance. Pakistan, its people, and its authorities need to spring into action and be prepared for whatever this monsoon could bring. We must assume that anything could happen. It could be a severe water shortage impacting the nation’s food supply, or devastating rains from Chitral to Sindh. We need to take broad measures to afford ourselves a degree of safety from any eventuality. Weather forecasters must monitor the weather very closely and try their best to forecast. The nation has to take action accordingly. Our preparations for both floods and water shortages must accommodate each other. The mistake we made in 2011 must not be repeated.
There are many ways we can ready ourselves for floods. We can keep flood response systems on high alert all across the nation, such as flood warning systems and rescue services. We need to make sure our water infrastructure is quick to respond. The people need to have evacuation routes mapped out. If only urban floods are to happen, we need to clear the streets of trash to prevent the clogging of drains. As for the possibility of drought, preparation might be more difficult. It will be an event with likely longer-term consequences and preparation usually also has to be long-term. In the little time that we have, it seems all we can do is operate the Indus irrigation system in such a way as to collect as much water as possible and we also need to stockpile on food and water.
It is a time for our nation to rise together and get on its feet in dealing with an issue of urgency. It is a test of how quickly we can act. We must consider the range of possibilities and plan accordingly. If anything does happen during this monsoon season, we must be smart and swift in responding to it. Afterwards, we must learn to apply the lessons to the future. When this monsoon season has passed we must focus on preparation for the 2019 monsoon season and beyond. To get an idea of what will happen, we need to understand what has happened.
We first need to find out how the train of flood seasons affecting Pakistan since 2010 happened. Scientists have devised explanations behind the flooding of each individual monsoon season, but we have yet to hear of a theory explaining a link between them, other than climate change. Global warming caused by human activities is almost certainly changing the behavior of weather all around the globe and is predicted to severely affect the Asian monsoon and lead to more flooding and drought. We need to determine exactly how this will happen or what are the difference possibilities. To explain the floods more specifically, it should be noted that July 2010, the start of Pakistan’s massive deluge, was at the end of the hottest twelve-month period in the world since global temperature records began in 1880. Afterwards, the world continued to break 12-month heat records continuously. If climate change is responsible for what the nation has experienced in the past several years, it means that 2010 may be the start of a new era and that our monsoon will never get back to the way it was.
Such information may help us go a long way in predicting what the monsoon will do in the future. We have a broad need to study the impact of global warming on the Asian monsoon. Monsoon hazards for Pakistan are basically changing and we need to know just how it is changing so we can know what the future holds in store. In order to be resilient in the face of whatever the weather brings us, we need science.
Scientific investigation is something we need not have to do on our own. Knowledge is often relatively easy to gain it and once it exists, it can spread by itself. Scholars of the world have an insatiable desire to understand the entire world. They do not limit themselves to studying what lies within their nation or is of concern to their nation. Additionally, Earth’s atmosphere is a deeply interconnected system and weather phenomena tend to be wide-ranging and show no concern for borders.
Scientists in the world’s developed countries can be easily compelled to study the Asian monsoon, one of the planet’s most important weather systems. It is a top priority of scientists to study the possible impact of climate change and the monsoon is one of the most important subjects in this regard. As the vital question is what to expect every monsoon season, we can persuade bright minds and scientific talents from anywhere in the world (they do not need to come to Pakistan) to study the causes of the great floods of the first half of this decade and why we have seen floods so many year in a row. We also need to work together with our neighbors in this matter, as it is in our common interest. It is time to embark on the path of discovery regarding the future of our monsoon.
In the meantime, we Pakistanis need to find out how we can cope with floods and droughts and work towards that end. We have plenty of time to prepare for whatever eventuality the 2019 monsoon season will bring, the tenth since 2010, and whatever happens in this year’s monsoon can give us clues as to what we can expect from now on. But we must also do all that we can to survive any crisis that could happen right now. Both flooding and drought are likely possibilities this monsoon season. So as monsoon currents from the Indian Ocean head towards our nation, we must brace ourselves for both threats.
Along with this monsoon season comes the 2018 Pakistan General Elections, which will be concluded on July 25. With the current circumstances, we have a good opportunity to make environmental problems and disaster risk reduction central issues in the election. We should judge our candidates by how well they are dealing with our current monsoon problems and what problems could come just ahead and by their formula for managing disasters and dealing with climate change’s impact on our nation in general. Then, by July 25, we may be able to elect the government that is sensitized to get us through the month of August, when the summer monsoon is the most hazardous, (and afterwards). It should also be a government that will set the right course from now on in disaster risk reduction and environmental management and help Pakistan to brace itself for the future.
As we proceed through the summer monsoon, the most important but also hazardous season of the year, our best strategy is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Shahzeb Khan is a writer, documentary maker, and environment activist. His work has been commended by the US president Barack Obama for outstanding achievement in environmental stewardship. He is the director of Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management (PPLDM), official website http://www.ppldm.net and blog at http://www.pldmsite.wordpress.com. He can be reached at skhan@ppldm.net


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