Pakistan’s Latest Crisis: Another Monsoon out of Bounds

This monsoon season has, once again, left Pakistan disaster-stricken. Millions of lives have been upended by the effects of catastrophic torrential rain across the country and hundreds have died. As September comes to an end, countless Pakistanis are still coping with the devastation left behind by the summer monsoon. In that way, the crisis still continues and it is likely going to be a long time before people impacted by severe weather this summer get their lives back to normal.

Much of that is because this is a time when Pakistan is suffering from two other major crises, the coronavirus pandemic and the locust upsurge, pushing us towards a health crisis and a food crisis. The ways monsoon weather could play out with these hazards has been explored in detail back in mid-July in The Catastrophes Looming Ahead (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2020/07/16/the-catastrophes-looming-ahead/). While it may look like things have not turned out very bad, keep in mind that heavy rainfall and flooding could enable locust breeding to breed abundantly within the country and COVID-19 may spread more easily among the displaced people and with lockdowns probably harder to implement in areas affected by severe weather. Because of such factors, it is entirely possible that the main consequences of Pakistan’s 2020 monsoon season are only going to materialize in the months ahead.

This year’s monsoon is relatively mild compared to the massive deluges Pakistan endured in past years, such as 2010, 2011, and 2012, or the devastating floods that have befallen India and Bangladesh to the east this year. And almost every year, monsoon weather is so intense that Pakistan struggles to cope. But Pakistan’s 2020 summer monsoon has still been exceptional in its severity and its impact on the nation has been extreme.

According to reports released by Pakistan’s Meteorological Department in early September, Pakistan received 35 percent more monsoon rain than normal by the end of August and, in southern Pakistan, rainfall was 159 percent above normal until the end of August. Incessant torrential rains and strong thunderstorms produced severe flash floods, urban floods, riverine flooding, and landslides across Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, KPK, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Azad Kashmir for months. Sindh was where the monsoon flooding was the most severe, with 19 inches of rainfall in the month of August, the highest since records began 90 years ago and 362 percent higher than normal, and the province was struck by major flooding in late August and early September. Usually in the monsoon season, 80 percent of rainfall occurs in northern Pakistan and 20 percent in the south, but this year, it has been split 50-50. Sindh’s historic rainfall reached its peak on 24 August, when 9 inches of rain fell on the megacity of Karachi in just 12 hours, also a record, exacerbating urban flooding to unprecedented levels.

The consequences are devastating. More than 400 Pakistanis, including many children, are believed to have died since June due to monsoon rainfall. Two and a half million have been affected by floods and extensive economic damage has been wreaked. Sindh is the worst-affected area, with 22 of its districts being declared “disaster zones” by the government. Khyber-Pakhtunkwha is the next-worst affected, with dozens killed and many houses destroyed. Urban flooding is one of the main impacts of this monsoon. Many cities were inundated, but none more than Karachi, a sprawling megacity with tens of millions of people. More than 100 of them died and millions went through massive disruption and suffering due to the downpours and deluges. Major devastation has also been inflicted on rural areas, especially in Sindh, and looks to be the longest-lasting there. One million acres of crops have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. 68,000 people in Sindh are still in refugee camps and, according to reports, 300,000 are in need of food aid.

These events have tragically taken the lives of hundreds of people. They have destroyed property on a vast scale. And they have plunged millions into extreme misery at a time when Pakistanis already have so many hardships to deal with. We now face the challenge of recovery from 2020’s severe monsoon weather and the very wide variety of ways it has wreaked havoc on the nation.

Heavy rainfall has had such severe impacts on Pakistan’s cities that urban flooding can count as one of the nation’s major disasters in 2020. Significant inundation, other major problems like power outages, and a spate of rain-related accidents occurred in many cities such as Hyderabad, Lahore, and especially Karachi, which suffered badly starting with its first monsoon spell on July 6 and was largely submerged in late August. Pakistan’s economic powerhouse was brought to a standstill for days on end. The shutdown and the damages resulted in huge economic losses for Pakistan. Added to this is the life-threatening situations countless people caught up in the havoc were exposed to. Cities like Karachi are places where a whole lot of all sorts of things are jumbled together, so when floodwaters pour in to stir up all this, the resulting hazards are endless.

Of the many dozens of people who died (already) in Karachi and other cities, the main causes of death were drowning in floodwaters, electrocution, and building collapse. Many millions in Karachi also endured great suffering. Movement became impossible due to roads turning into rivers and many city-dwellers were trapped where they were, needing rescue. In some cases, rescue was impossible as rescue boats could not move through the fast-moving floodwaters filled with everything from furniture to shipping crates. Many people were evacuated and had to go live with relatives. The city’s sewage system was overwhelmed and sewage mixed freely with the floodwaters that many people were surrounded by. Power outages gripped the city for days on end, either because the electric stations fell victim to water or because power was deliberately cut to protect people from electrocution. The destruction of cell towers meant that many people were cut off from all telecommunication. Some streets remained flooded for up to a week after rainfall.

One of the most distressing things about the urban turmoil is how people in need of medical help were deprived of access to it. Many weren’t able to get to hospital because the streets were underwater, preventing all movement or just wheeled traffic. Hospitals themselves suffered due to power outages and inability of staff and supplies to move to there. And there were a lot of people who needed hospitalization, including for ailments brought on by the rainstorms and, of course, for COVID-19.

Karachi’s unprecedented rainfall was by itself enough to create huge problems, but what made everything far worse were the conditions in the city and the poor response to the crisis. Cities are generally vulnerable to flooding because solid paving prevents rainwater from being absorbed into the ground, so a well-maintained drainage system is needed to get rid of excess water. But the drainage system in Karachi utterly failed. The drains were not expansive enough, a result of illegal encroachment by developers, and they were clogged with debris, a result of Karachi’s poor waste management. No serious effort was made to clear Karachi’s drains before the monsoon. When the flooding of July 6 alerted people to the problem, unclogging of drains proceeded at a very slow pace until Karachi’s month of severe flooding set in. A desperate effort was then launched to clear the drains, involving NDMA and the army, but it was too late. Preparation is the best course of action.

Building collapse was very common across Pakistan in rural and urban areas alike. Many of these, of course, were victims of fast-moving floodwaters but numerous buildings also caved-in after exposure only to torrential rain. Reasons attributed for this include water accumulation weakening building foundations, buildings being so old and dilapidated that they could not handle rain, and also many of the buildings were made of mud-brick. Many casualties resulted from these falling buildings. What must have made the toll worse were people being kept indoors by severe weather (and maybe by the COVID-19 lockdowns, also).  

Floods were common everywhere, not just in the cities. The damage they wreaked was wide-ranging. Balochistan mostly suffered from raging flash floods. Extensive damage was caused to the province’s transportation infrastructure. Many roads and bridges were destroyed and highways were blocked. As a result, large rural areas and many villages were isolated by land from the outside. This even happened to the emerging city of Gwadar (https://reliefweb.int/report/pakistan/gwadar-cut-flash-floods-hit-parts-balochistan). The devastation that rural areas of Balochistan suffered has received relatively little attention from the media and authorities.

In Pakistan’s mountainous areas, monsoon downpours were particularly destructive, as they always are. Fast-moving floodwaters caused extensive infrastructure damage and killed dozens of people. Landslides were another big problem. Extensive damage befell transportation routes in the mountains, resulting in many communities being isolated. Some of the worst flooding came to Swat Valley on 28 August due to a cloudburst (https://www.dawn.com/news/1577826/devastation-in-kp). There were even two very damaging glacial lake outburst floods in Chitral.

Punjab is used to heavy rains and flooding, but even here, the effects of this year’s monsoon were hard to cope with. There were building collapses everywhere, of course. The rivers also swelled up in many places.  Pakistan’s main reservoirs filled to peak capacity, an alarming situation, and water was released from some of them, causing flooding downstream. In late August and early September, Chenab and Jhelum rivers burst their banks and flooded wide areas. The main effects of the riverine floods were agricultural damage and mass displacement of people. Hundreds of villagers were even evacuated just due to predictions of imminent flooding.

And then there is Sindh, where the destruction was unrelenting from the province’s biggest metropolis to remote villages. The first severe floods in the province were in early July, when heavy rainfall nearby in Balochistan caused the Gaj river to flood, inundating hundreds of villages. The worst of the rainfall was an enormous spell from 22 to 29 August, including the record-breaking rains in Karachi. A major disaster then began to befall Sindh as massive flooding overtook the province. The Indus River overflowed its banks and submerged large areas. The floods and the rains continued well into September, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom already lived in abject poverty and had to set up makeshift camps by themselves wherever the land was high enough. It is estimated that more than 77,000 houses were destroyed and more than 137,000 sustained damages.

Now, the rainfall is mostly over, but it has left behind a country in need of emergency response, especially in Sindh. Some areas in Sindh remain flooded, as that land has poor topographical drainage. With the destruction of homes and villages, most flood victims are yet to be rehabilitated. People in refugee camps have often languished in appalling conditions. Many were without food and sources of clean water. One particularly large refugee camp is a “tent city” on the outskirts of Umerkot where 5,000 families moved in. Many flood affectees are deciding to migrate to far-away areas, such as Tharparkar, many because they fear their farmlands will remain flooded by November or because they are moving their livestock to better places while pests like mosquitoes abound in the flood zones.

Starvation is a big issue, not only now but also for the near future as agricultural losses have been huge. About a million acres of cropland in Sindh were destroyed. Many livestock have died from the floods and afterwards from mosquitoes. The World Food Program sent a mission to Sindh that estimated that 300,000 people need food aid (https://reliefweb.int/report/pakistan/wfp-pakistan-sindh-flood-response-situation-report-1-10-september-2020).

The spread of disease is one of the most serious issues to emerge in the wake of the rainstorms. In the cities, sewage freely mixed with floodwaters, so people exposed to floodwaters have been at high risk of infection. Now there is risk that waterborne and other diseases will break out in cities like Karachi. Lack of clean drinking water is also putting people in danger of disease, especially in rural Sindh. Not only do many of the flood-displaced have only floodwaters and rainwater to drink, but they mostly have no access to sanitary facilities and have to defecate out in the open, potentially contaminating water. The biggest problem of all are huge outbreaks of flies and mosquitoes in Sindh after the monsoon rains and floods. The swarms of mosquitoes have been reported as being “unprecedented” in the news.

Pakistan, especially Sindh, is now under significant risk that there will soon emerge epidemics of cholera, typhoid, malaria, dengue, hepatitis, and various other diseases. If this happens, it could be hugely disastrous in conjunction with the current pandemic, as it increases the chance of Pakistan’s healthcare system being overwhelmed, thereby putting the lives of patients all across Pakistan at risk whatever their ailments are.

What is eyebrow-raising about the flood crisis in Sindh and other places is how meager the response is. When disaster strikes an area, the government of the country must do everything within its means to manage it and NGOs and the international community often come in to help out. But that is not happening with the current situation in Pakistan as would be expected. For instance, the 2011 Sindh floods, while of a similar nature, were on a far larger scale than this year’s flooding in Sindh, yet some flood victims interviewed by the media have said that help swiftly came from the government and from NGOs in 2011 while now, they have been waiting weeks for anything to be done. Pakistan’s disaster response is curiously turning out to be far worse than it usually is and that is probably why the impact of the 2020 monsoon is turning out to be such a huge disaster. One would expect that this year’s rainfall would at least be something Pakistan is used to. It is mild compared to some of Pakistan’s major floods.

One way that 2011 was different was that Karachi was relatively unscathed by floods and many philanthropists from the city came to rural Sindh to help. But now, with the bustling megacity hit by monsoon rains just as hard as rural areas, a lot of attention has been focused on it and it has also consumed a lot of the country’s emergency management efforts. Karachi’s devastation is also a hard blow to the whole nation itself, given that it is the seat of the economy. But that’s not the elephant in the room here. Pakistan, and the rest of the world, has not been in a normal situation in any way at all for the past several months. We are in the throes of the worst pandemic in a century and it has turned absolutely everything upside down. It has killed thousands and sickened tens of thousands and has run Pakistan’s economic and social life into the ground.

Combine this with the locust invasion and Pakistan was a battered country by the time the monsoon rains arrived. This explains everything. Not only is there so much disaster for Pakistan to deal with, but to fight the virus hazard, we have had to cut back on all the typical human activities that keep a nation running and thereby keep its disaster management capacity afloat. Because the rest of the world also is being hit-hard by the pandemic and various other troubles, international assistance has also been made less likely. COVID-19 must have compromised not only Pakistan’s response to natural disasters but also its preparation. The nation is always supposed to ready itself for every summer monsoon season, but coronavirus overtook the nation in March and lockdowns were constantly implemented everywhere. One example of an effect of this is in a news report in late May of the dredging of Leh Nullah being delayed (https://www.dawn.com/news/1559582/leh-nullah-dredging-delayed-due-to-lockdown). Leh Nullah is one of Islamabad’s most important drainage channels. It is supposed to be cleared of debris and mud every year from April to end of June but, under the lockdown, the Water and Sanitation Agency had still not begun work on this even amidst fears the upcoming monsoon would be severe.

Pakistan needs to be more mindful of its need for multi-hazard risk management. Other crises have struck or may strike the country during the pandemic and the multiple crises playing out together will have a magnified impact on Pakistan. The country cannot afford to ignore all other disaster risks during the pandemic while doing its utmost to combat the coronavirus. But, undeniably, the challenges at hand are tremendous.

One of our many current risks is that relief efforts for the floods may contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Right now, we are short on relief workers gathering supplies and going down to the food-affected people, presumably minimizing the chance that they will spread or contract the virus. But this actually may not prevent the pandemic from worsening in the flood zones. We have hundreds of thousands of people crammed together into dense refugee camps. People who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 and are ill cannot be quarantined from everyone else. There is no hygiene or sanitation there at all. They cannot wash their hands or wear masks. Lockdowns absolutely cannot be imposed on them at all. They will be working and having human-to-human contact a lot in order to survive. In these populations, SARS-CoV-2 has ample opportunity to spread like wildfire. To prevent this, we have to help the displaced Sindhis get back on their feet as soon as possible.

On the other hand, aid workers sent to them may ignite the sparks starting the wildfires. Our best course of action is to thoroughly test all relief workers for COVID-19 and make sure they strictly abide by physical distancing protocols (or get people who were infected before and are now immune). They can just arrive, sanitize supplies, and drop them off for flood victims to pick up. Best if the supplies are scattered so people do not crowd together while collecting them. But the flood victims need more than deliveries. They will need assistance in many ways. This is going to be a test of how people can help pull each other out of the monsoon devastation without the virus being able to spread between them.

Here is a piece of advice. The mosquito swarms are quite fearsome. Let us guide the people suffering from them to cover their entire bodies, including their faces, with clothing like shawls. Their faces will be masked, the prime COVID-19 safeguard, while all of their skin is shielded from the insects.

In order to find solutions to the numerous dilemmas and conundrums confronting us, we have to thoroughly analyze and comprehend the complex interplay between COVID-19 and other hazards like natural disasters. An upside is that severe weather and flooding (mild enough to ensure houses remain habitable) tend to keep people indoors, thus being a natural lockdown. Think of how the rainfall, floods, and landslides have isolated many communities from each other and from the outside and how this means the virus can’t spread. Strong winds also clear the air of infectious particles, allowing people outside to safely congregate closer, and the winds can penetrate indoor spaces and improve ventilation.

On the other hand, there are many more ways extreme weather can worsen the pandemic. Rural areas seem to be spared COVID-19 longer than urban areas because of their low population density and connectivity, but that changes when natural disasters concentrate people into refugee camps. Also, with the pandemic being primarily an urban disaster, it has occurred alongside Pakistan’s epic urban flooding. People have to deal with both crises at the same time, and the flooding breaks down the ability to manage the pandemic. Pakistan is relying heavily on smart lockdowns, a combination of quarantine and tracing, both of which can be harder to implement in the midst of monsoon chaos or in the aftermath. When people are struggling to cope with natural disasters, they are likely to give up on all the burdensome coronavirus measures and may continue to do so in the aftermath.

We now have to wait and see how the coronavirus outbreak proceeds in Karachi, rural Sindh, and other monsoon-stricken areas, but we should also predict how it does beforehand so we can take preliminary measures. Fortunately, the pandemic has been declining in Pakistan for the past three months and is at a low point even as the country is being reopened (now the WHO is praising Pakistan for its handling of the pandemic). This is very good. It has hopefully provided Pakistan some breathing space as it weathers the monsoon of the same last three months. Unfortunately, though, there are recent reports of a rise in coronavirus infections in Sindh, the most flood-ravaged province (https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/722063-coronavirus-sindh-warns-against-rising-coronavirus-cases).

What about the locust crisis, which could end up being the longest-lasting negative effect of the monsoon? There was so much heavy rainfall across Pakistan, which is beneficial for locust outbreaks. There is especially extensive flooding in Sindh, a region that is arid in many places, that continues to linger on. Meanwhile, vegetation in the desert of Tharparkar is blooming due to the monsoon rains. This is a prime recipe for locust breeding.

There has, fortunately, been a decline in locust swarms across Pakistan to the point that it is now reported that swarms have been eradicated from most of Pakistan. Swarms are being spotted only in Lasbela district in Balochistan, which the authorities are rushing to take care of. However, there are sightings of hoppers, juvenile locusts, in many parts of Pakistan including Sindh, and Sindh is also vulnerable to locusts coming in from Rajasthan in India. It may be that extensive locust breeding is taking place under the shadows of the stagnant flood waters, the mosquito swarms, the internally displaced persons, and other havoc in the rain-stricken areas that will limit our ability to control the pests. With all the factors detailed, especially the bloom in Tharparkar, there is a strong possibility that a homegrown locust invasion will re-emerge in Pakistan within the coming months.

Pakistan’s best strategy now is to take advantage of the lull in the coronavirus epidemic and the locust invasion to devote all its effort to providing relief and rehabilitation to the people affected by monsoon disasters. Those two unusual disasters compromised our preparation for Pakistan’s most common hazard, but they need not interfere with our response now that they have retreated. Let us keep lockdowns suspended to revitalize the economic activity needed for relief and recovery, dedicate our budget and resources to the flood response, and get as many Pakistanis involved as possible in aiding their compatriots who have been upended by severe weather, while bringing the plight of the rainstorm-affected to the forefront of media attention. We just have to do all this as quickly as possible before the coronavirus and locusts come back. Time is of the essence. It is vital that we avoid fighting on many fronts at the same time. And in the meantime, we must take preemptive measures against the resurgence of coronavirus and locusts, coordinating it with our flood response, because prevention is the best course of action.

Finally, we need to continue keeping an eye on the weather. 2020’s summer monsoon has been the latest in a constant spate of extreme weather affecting the region. All around the world, in fact, the weather is going haywire, as the impact of climate change seemingly ascends. Witness the scale of California’s wildfires, Sudan’s floods, the Atlantic hurricane season, China’s floods, and on and on. The weather is connected all over the world. Severe weather now has to be brought to the forefront of our concerns. This summer’s chaotic monsoon may be over now (hopefully), but now cyclone season in the Arabian Sea has started. Cyclone impacts on Pakistan are another weather event that can exacerbate outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts. Cyclones have historically not been one of Pakistan’s biggest natural hazards, but remember how unprecedented the severity of cyclone activity in the Arabian Sea was in late 2019. Pakistan’s national priority now should be getting ready for cyclone contingencies so that we can be better able this time to tackle three major crises all together.

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