The Catastrophes Looming Ahead

We are now at the beginning of the summer monsoon season in Pakistan, the three months in which the country can expect to receive most of its rainfall. While important, the monsoon season can be a dangerous time, as monsoon precipitation in South Asia can be higher or lower than normal, causing disasters like flooding and drought. That means Pakistanis have to be prepared for natural hazards at the start of every summer. This monsoon of 2020, however, has the potential to be vastly more dangerous than any we have ever had to deal with before. It is likely going to be an experience without precedent. This is because of an extraordinary set of circumstances that could converge when the rains come in full swing.

First, there is a disaster waiting to happen even if the monsoon weather itself does not turn out to be particularly severe. Pakistan and the wider region are currently experiencing a massive locust upsurge which is going to be worsened by the arrival of heavier precipitation that the monsoon always brings. Locusts breed in a frenzy when vegetation blooms and, when the plants they eat and grow up on get depleted, they travel to other places in massive swarms in search of more vegetation.

Unusually wet weather in eastern Africa in 2018 and 2019 laid the seeds for an outbreak of desert locusts that is now running from Tanzania to India and is the worst in decades. Pakistan is one of the countries being badly affected and the locusts are also breeding within its territory and in neighboring regions in Iran and India. This pestilence is pushing Pakistan and other countries towards famine.

The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization a while back predicted a huge increase in locust populations, 400 or 500-fold, in Asia by June 2020 amidst increased rainfall (https://weather.com/news/news/2020-01-22-east-africa-locust-swarms-rain-weather). That exact forecast has not materialized and while there has been a rise in the number of locusts by June, most of these insects apparently have migrated to fresh pasture in India, sparing other countries like Pakistan (https://www.dawn.com/news/1568081/major-locust-swarms-may-reach-pakistan-later-this-month). But the arrival of the monsoon rains will likely be what supercharges the locust pestilence by creating lush conditions across South Asia, with potentially devastating consequences.

Monsoon rainfall may be a boom for farmers in the region but, during a full-blown locust plague, its benefits could be more than offset by boosting locust numbers in two ways. First, locusts from Africa and the Middle East may migrate to South Asia to take advantage of the monsoon bounty. Second, locusts will be breeding a lot more in both Pakistan and India. India may play host to a considerable reservoir of locusts which will keep pouring into Pakistan. Locusts and their offspring will eat the crops sprouting during the monsoon, depriving us of crop yields. Then, after the monsoon season subsides, enormous locust swarms could spring up and lay waste to our kharif harvests, before running rampant for months afterwards. The consequences could bear upon 2021, making it an even worse locust year. As a result, we could be in for severe agricultural losses and food insecurity beginning this summer monsoon.

In addition to rain, we also have to worry about wind patterns. The movement of locusts largely depends upon the direction winds blow near the ground and during the summer, strong monsoon winds tend to blow from the Arabian Sea and India to Pakistan. Locust populations are going strong in both the Horn of Africa and India and locusts from both these regions will be carried by monsoon winds into Pakistan. The resulting situation could become very dire as the shifting monsoon circulation could have the ability to dislocate entire locust populations. Omar Hamid Khan, of the Ministry of Food Security and Research Secretary, has himself stated that, in the next few weeks, swarms that traveled from Pakistan to India could turn back and that 400 times more locusts will come to our shores from Somalia than in 2019 (https://www.dawn.com/news/1568081/major-locust-swarms-may-reach-pakistan-later-this-month).

Any severe weather the monsoon brings could hamper our efforts to fight the locust swarms. The main method most affected countries are employing to control locusts is to spray large amounts of pesticides from airplanes, ground vehicles, and on foot. All three types of movement become difficult or impossible if we have to contend with flooding, landslides, muddy conditions, and, for flying, severe storms. Water from heavy rainfall, especially in the event of flooding, is likely to wash pesticides away. If major weather disasters strike Pakistan, our need to respond to them will divert our efforts from the campaign against locusts. For example, we may need to use our aircraft only for evacuating people and delivering supplies to flood-hit areas, leaving no room for the spraying of locust pesticides.

Because of these circumstances, there is a high risk that famine will occur in Pakistan, a risk also made much worse by the other great calamity that our country is currently in the grip of.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which began its global spread just five months ago, has already infected ten million people and killed half a million across the world, and these are just the cases we can verify. In many developed countries, it appears that the virus outbreak abated for some time and is now resurging, while the pandemic is only just beginning in the developing world. In Pakistan, more than 250,000 people have already been infected, of which more than 5,000 died, and the WHO says that the country right now has one of the world’s fastest-spreading coronavirus outbreaks. Hospitals across the nation are starting to get overwhelmed with the flood of cases (https://apnews.com/3f6a3069cc788ce41f32a42bdf2d6c96).

The ways in which weather can affect the coronavirus pandemic have been dealt with at length on this blog a few months back on “An Age of Storms: COVID-19 Pandemic and the Weather” (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2020/04/04/an-era-of-storms-covid-19-pandemic-and-the-weather/). Now, with the onset of the summer monsoon season, it is more important than ever to be aware of this subject, which is a highly complicated one.

If this year’s monsoon is a mild one in Pakistan, it might not significantly worsen the outcome of the pandemic. However, if we have a severe monsoon coming our way, the consequences could be extremely serious. Flooding is what we have to fear the most. Many severe floods affecting wide swathes of Pakistan have occurred in the last decade. Human societies caught up in flooding experience massive disruption and havoc, which can completely upend our efforts to fight COVID-19. Floods foster conditions conducive to the spread of the virus.

Containment of COVID-19 hinges upon physical distancing, but floods in Pakistan can remove distancing from their priorities. Mild flooding can prevent spread of virus by keeping people inside their homes, but more severe flooding has the tendency to displace people on a large scale, and cause people to congregate. People who are stranded in or escaping floodwaters may all find themselves in certain narrow spots, such as a building or a small piece of land providing them some refuge. When people are moving away from flood-affected areas, they may travel together in dense numbers, such as on buses, trains, or caravans. They are likely to end up in densely populated refugee camps. This is true for societies with limited capacity to cope with flooding, which agrarian communities in Pakistan mostly are. Even when a strong flood management capacity exists, the usual policy is moving lots of people into a small number of storm shelters. Preventing crowded conditions can be next to impossible.

Whether it is a proper shelter or a makeshift camp, the virus causing COVID-19 finds an ideal setting to quickly spread to as many people as possible. People end up sharing the same food and using the same utilities and materials. It does not matter if people are displaying symptoms and are ill or have health conditions and are very vulnerable, in a disaster-induced displacement, keeping their distance from others is usually not an option. Flood-affected people in Pakistan may not have access to the amenities required to protect against the spread of the virus, such as soap, clean water and masks.

Furthermore, when Pakistanis become ill with COVID-19 at the same time they are impacted by flooding, vital medical care often becomes inaccessible. The functioning of hospitals and healthcare is one of the basic human activities floods are good at interrupting, and those stranded in flood zones can lose contact with the outside world. Sure, vital supplies like food and medicine often can be delivered by means such as helicopters, but sending medical professionals to do all that is needed to fight COVID-19, testing, contact tracing, and providing the range of care needed for sick people, including putting them on ventilators, is going to be out of the question. Even when flood victims are easily accessible by being in proper refugee camps, it can be hard to care for all those people when floods strike the nation.

All of Pakistan’s efforts to fight COVID-19, not just within its flood-affected areas but beyond, can be disrupted by severe flooding. The coronavirus is already persisting as an overwhelming crisis that we can barely handle. Floods will just pile up on the burden. The floods themselves can directly halt our virus management efforts, especially if they block transportation routes. We will not be able to do testing as much or move much-needed supplies around. Even production of materials such as medicines and masks can decline if floods affect the sites or the people involved and block the supply of materials needed for manufacturing. We want to keep tab of things and monitor where the virus is spreading so we can implement the right strategies for fighting it? When the entire area we are dealing with goes underwater, all those plans are going to go out the window. In flooding, there is chaos and where there is chaos, the virus thrives.

Traditional coronavirus countermeasures, such as lockdowns and physical distancing, are proving to be very troublesome for Pakistan and its common folks, mostly by preventing people from working and decreasing economic productivity. If they are affected by flooding, they will be forced to simply throw those policies out the window. Floods tend to destroy and disrupt livelihoods, so people affected by them are compelled to work as much as they can during and after flooding in order to make up for their losses and preserve their livelihoods. Plus, the new hardships they face can compromise their access to other coronavirus countermeasures such as face masks and medicine.

Floods tend to be the biggest problem for the rural areas of Pakistan. These same areas also may be less vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus because of their low population density. However, flooding could turn this situation around by displacing rural populations and pushing them into refugee camps. When the virus then spreads freely among them, a huge disaster could be in the making as rural people tend to have less access to medical care.

Although urban flooding tends not to be a very serious disaster in Pakistan, the interplay between it and the coronavirus pandemic, which primarily affects cities, could result in very serious consequences. Urban flooding can shut down cities. It can therefore shut down our fight against COVID-19, including, ironically, our own shutdown efforts. We are trying to carry out smart lockdowns, which relies upon testing and monitoring, but this will be much harder when cities are underwater. People ill with COVID-19 will also be unable to go to hospitals easily or have access to doctors and medical supplies when the streets are submerged.

Severe monsoon floods in Pakistan usually start around the end of July and the rains tend to end in early or mid-September, so we may see around a month of active flooding in 2020. Flooding that occurs in Pakistan sometimes remains in areas it submerges for months on end. When floodwaters do recede, the damage they leave behind can last for even longer. So if severe flooding occurs in the summer of 2020, it may continue to impact us for a long time, which is very bad news given the fast pace of the coronavirus pandemic. The first wave might run its course before we finish coping with disastrous effects of flooding.

Besides floods, another major hazard often brought by the monsoon season is outbreaks or epidemics of various diseases (besides COVID-19), mostly water-borne and vector-borne diseases. Epidemics tend to be the worst in the event of flooding and can be of a very wide variety of diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, malaria, dengue, diarrhea, and gastroenteritis. However, major mosquito-borne epidemics can occur even in a mild monsoon season. Dengue is the most dangerous mosquito-borne disease in Pakistan. It may be our main threat of another major epidemic occurring alongside COVID-19.

Other diseases breaking out at the same time COVID-19 is doing so, even to a mild extent, is a very serious danger. The coronavirus pandemic, by making so many people sick at the same time, is heavily burdening Pakistan’s medical sector, potentially causing people to die of a disease they could have been treated for. Other diseases remain a part of this burden on healthcare and if their cases also rise in number, these outbreaks in combination with COVID-19 could catastrophically exceed the capacity of our healthcare system.

We should also look out for how all the other effects of the monsoon may interact with the course of the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, landslides are very common in the mountainous and hilly areas during monsoon rainfall. If transportation routes are blocked by them during this time, the cutting of supply lines can be especially consequential. Medical workers, medicines, and testing kits can be prevented from going to communities suffering from coronavirus infections. When communities are suffering from lockdown measures as well, their access to food and other necessities from other places can be denied. People prevented from working become less self-sufficient and more reliant on the delivery of aid, making open roads more important. Dust storms are another common effect of the summer monsoon. They cause a variety of problems at any time, but the irritation they cause to the human respiratory system can worsen COVID-19 infections. Generally, any routine problem created by the monsoon can have a magnified impact when the country is being ravaged by a severe pandemic.

The ways in which the different hazards Pakistan faces in the coming months can interact with each other are immensely complex. There are a variety of possibilities in what may happen. But generally, having many crises occurring at the same time can just be too much for the nation to cope with, giving the finite quantity of resources, manpower, and time we have. If three immense threats, pandemic, locust invasion, and severe flooding, strike our nation together, our ability to mitigate them and to survive their effects will likely be very low. Even worse is how each hazard can enhance the other, making the combined impact of the hazards bigger than the impacts of each hazard occurring separately.

Another big issue for the perilous months ahead is that protecting Pakistanis from the coronavirus pandemic depends largely on most people literally staying home and doing nothing (until we can work up a different viable strategy, that is). They have to keep their distance from each other and this decreases the productivity of society, because civilization runs upon human interactions. But when there are events such as locust attacks and floods to cope with, society has to become more productive and people have to get together to handle these crises. Lockdowns harm Pakistan’s fragile economy and lower-income people, but so do floods and locust. We still are trying to implement quarantine restrictions as much as we can afford, but if the monsoon produces flooding and a surge in locust numbers, this whole strategy may become completely impossible. People will have a choice between continuing with coronavirus restrictions and suffering deprivations even more or working more to repair their losses from floods and locusts and making themselves vulnerable to COVID-19 infections even more, if they do not end up suffering both ways.

Our concerns are likely to revolve around food security. Starvation has become a major risk for the people of Pakistan, and the choice between starvation and illness has become a widespread dilemma. Coronavirus lockdowns are a potent driver of food shortages, but locusts are also in the mix and, probably, so will flooding soon. Floods and locusts both destroy agricultural harvests. The impact of both happening may be huge. Flooding could destroy food supplies and block access to food and, when it subsides, what little food people have left may be lost to locusts. When food shortages caused by events like these happen, people will have to work a lot to restore agricultural production or to earn money so they can continue to eke out a living, all the while supply lines have to continue to freely operate. But this is the very opposite of going into lockdown. We have not yet managed to make vital productivity and coronavirus sanitation compatible with each other. It seems people will either starve or suffer catastrophic COVID-19 casualties, and there is also a strong chance they will do both.

The pandemic itself may directly enable this to happen, in fact. While COVID-19 casualties are, of course, a tragedy that we have to avoid, the measures we take to do so seem to be the source of insurmountable troubles for us, gagging economic productivity. But suppose we forego containment policies and allow the coronavirus to spread freely among the population. A large number of people who get infected will need medical care provided to them, which in itself will be so expensive that the economy could suffer a catastrophic blow. But suppose that we leave medical care out of the picture as well, letting the virus spread and letting victims fare however they will. COVID-19 doesn’t just kill. It makes people ill and bed-ridden, often for weeks on end. If a large proportion of Pakistan’s population is infected or recovering at the same time, which is a scenario that might very well come true soon, millions upon millions of people will be unable to work or find it difficult to work. Then imagine if the other disasters are raging during this time. Locust attacks will rob people of their sustenance and floods will rob them of their very living space and all necessities and, to compound their misery, many of them will be struck down with illness. It is coronavirus infections, not lockdowns, which in the end may turn out to be the bigger threat to people’s livelihoods.

As we can clearly see, our annual summer monsoon season has arrived at the most dangerous time possible in Pakistan, due to a pandemic and locust upsurge also happening. But how much danger, if any, will the monsoon itself bring? Monsoon weather can be normal at times and can be severe enough at times to cause weather-related disasters, so it is vital for us to know how it will play out in 2020. Predicting monsoon weather well in advance has never been a very accurate endeavor, but we can have a good sense of how strong the season will be overall.

Our concerns are mostly set on the monsoon being too wet. But it can be too dry as well. A below-average monsoon, causing dry spells, and the possibility of drought would be disastrous as well when Pakistan is being ravaged by a respiratory virus and swarms of locusts. The kharif crops are the most important harvest of the year and if they yield little bounty, the livelihoods of Pakistanis can be dealt a severe blow. This can compound the miseries people are already suffering because of the coronavirus, locusts, and economic downturns and may be enough to throw lockdowns out of the question for many. The effect on the locust situation could be grave. Locusts may not explode in numbers as much but what little kharif harvest is left will be extremely precious to Pakistanis and locusts could devour them all. If monsoon rains fail to deliver in India, leading to declining vegetation, it will increase the chance that locusts there will move to Pakistan. Nevertheless, a dry monsoon does not seem to be a concern for us right now. Only a wetter-than-usual monsoon is a likely possibility in the coming months and all indications we already have point towards this.

In early June, the Pakistan Meteorological Department, based upon “regional and global circulation models”, announced that the upcoming monsoon season would likely bring ten percent more rainfall than normal to Pakistan. Sindh and Kashmir would see 20 percent higher rainfall (https://www.dawn.com/news/1562687). The effects of this amount of precipitation may only turn out to be urban flooding, hill torrents in Punjab, and minor riverine flooding, but it also produces a higher risk of major flooding. The Met department’s prediction has stuck so far, but it is far from certain, given how unpredictable the weather tends to be.

Looking more broadly at the global situation, there are indications that a La Nina is on the way. La Nina is the part of the ENSO climate cycle in which the western Pacific warms up and the eastern part of the ocean cools down. When a La Nina is happening, the monsoon in Asia usually becomes wetter than normal and floods in Pakistan are most likely to happen. For some months now, meteorologists were weighing the possibility of a La Nina arriving by the summer of 2020. Now, they are suggesting it is likely to happen (https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/watching-for-la-nina). Sea surface temperatures in the Pacific are already being observed to shift towards La Nina conditions and some forecasts say the chance of a La Nina has doubled and that it could arrive by the fall or winter, though that may be a little late to significantly affect the monsoon in Pakistan.

The intricate details of weather forecasting aside, what we are already seeing is a good sign of what is in store for us. The summer monsoon season has just begun in South Asia but it is already severe. It has reportedly covered all of India two weeks earlier than usual. Since then, flooding from torrential rainfall has broken out in northeastern India since late June and has displaced more than a million people. There has also already been heavy rainfall in Pakistan, especially in Sindh, causing severe problems in many cities, including scores of deaths and injuries.

It is also possible that we may be able to gauge our weather prospects by observing the way that weather has been behaving recently all across the world. By looking at weather phenomena since 2019, it becomes clear that the global incidence of extreme weather is at an all-time high. In late 2019, for instance, we had an extremely strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole. It produced record-breaking October-December flooding in East Africa, which boosted the locust upsurge to the extreme levels we have to contend with now, and the driest and hottest conditions ever observed in Australia, causing the devastating bushfires that shocked the world, as well as an overcharged Indian Ocean cyclone season (https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/india-climate-2019-arabian-sea-saw-400-more-cyclones-68690). Since then, we have had a constant stream of weather events all across the world that break records or are without parallel in recent memory. The long list of such anomalies includes, but are not limited to:

1. At the beginning of 2020, severe flooding in Jakarta that was the worst since 2007. Local authorities said it was caused by the heaviest one-day rainfall ever recorded in the area.
2. The driest January and February on record for the western United States. No rain fell in San Francisco throughout February for the first time since 1864 (https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2020/03/01/dry-february-no-rain-san-francisco-civil-war/).
3. From March to April, the largest known ozone hole to form over the Arctic and only the third known to exist, apparently caused by unusual weather phenomena in the form of a very strong polar vortex that pushed clouds into the stratosphere which released ozone-destroying chlorine.
4. Britain’s wettest February on record, followed by its sunniest and driest spring on record.
5. More severe flooding across east Africa since March, believed to be the worst in 40 years (https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/eastern-africa-region-floods-and-locust-outbreak-snapshot-may-2020).
6. The Atlantic hurricane season has just began but has already been usual in many ways, including a record-early start with the earliest-forming third named storms and fourth-named storms ever known (https://weather.com/safety/hurricane/news/2020-06-10-2020-hurricane-season-unusual-start).
7. Cyclone Amphan in late May, one of the biggest Bay of Bengal cyclones on record, biggest in two decades.
8. Some of the biggest wildfires in Arizona’s history which are currently raging, caused by heat and drought.
9. In late June, the biggest Saharan dust cloud in 50 years to cross the Atlantic Ocean from North Africa to the Americas, where it blocked out skies over the Caribbean and the US east coast with dust.
10. Ongoing severe floods in China due to heavy rainfall. Some areas saw their highest flood levels since 1940 and flood alerts in China have been issued at the highest level. The flooding is being blamed on an unusual amount of moisture coming from the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-weather-floods/china-raises-flood-alert-to-second-highest-level-idUSKCN24D05E).
11. Devastating floods caused by unprecedented rainfall in Japan. In some areas, flood levels were reportedly the highest in recorded history.
12. Weather forecasters say a record-breaking heat wave will soon cover most of the United States from one end to the other in July.
13. A record-breaking heat wave across Siberia, creating temperatures in the Arctic for the past few months that are sweltering even by global standards. In late June, the town of Verkhoyansk, in the Siberian Arctic, recorded a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the highest temperature ever recorded above the Arctic Circle (https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/06/21/arctic-temperature-record-siberia/).

Anomalies like these can be expected to happen from time to time, especially in this age of climate change, but so many in a span of a few months? It is quite clear that 2020 is standing out as a year of extreme weather. If the entire global climate is running wild and unleashing a deluge of disasters, then it is entirely likely that the Asian summer monsoon, usually one of the world’s wildest weather patterns, will be part of the trend and have a big surprise in store for us. The rest of the world is being ravaged. There is no reason to expect that we will be spared.

It is uncommon for a year to be as meteorologically tumultuous as 2020. One other year which was that way was 2010. It was a year of many weather extremes around the world and, as it happens, one of them was the cataclysmic monsoon flooding in Pakistan, in which a fifth of the country was submerged. 2010 was also a La Nina year, just like 2020 is expected to be, so the two years have much in common. In fact, they may be very similar, as we are about to see.

Some of our worst risks may materialize if one remark by an eminent meteorologist turns out to be true. Back in late March, when weather models were already depicting the formation of La Nina later in 2020, one Dr. Michael Ventrice, who is a weather forecaster with a PhD in tropical meteorology, had this to tweet on March 29.

“In terms of the ENSO3.4 index, the CFSv2 climate model is predicting a robust -1C to -1.5C value by Fall 2020… firmly in the “La Nina” spectrum. This would be the strongest La Nina event since 2010 if this forecast verifies.
All ENSO events are unique, as are the impacts.” https://twitter.com/MJVentrice/status/1244220916269223936 — Michael Ventrice (@MJVentrice) March 29, 2020

That is a very worrisome prediction. The La Nina that lasted from 2010-2012 was one of the strongest on record and coincided not only with the massive flooding that struck Pakistan in 2010 but also in 2011 and 2012. So if this year’s La Nina ends up having comparable strength to that one, we might see a repeat of these devastating floods. Those floods were severe calamities for Pakistan by themselves. If similar events happen right now during these other epic disasters our nation is in the throes of, the coronavirus pandemic and the locust upsurge, then the consequences could be unthinkable.

I haven’t seen Michael Ventrice’s claim followed up by anyone else then or now. But if a climate model did really predict this, we should pay heed. Nevertheless, current forecasts say La Nina will materialize by fall or winter, which may be too late to significantly influence the summer monsoon. Our biggest danger could actually be something else, something that 2010 and 2020 also have in common with each other.

Besides La Nina, the main cause of the 2010 Pakistan floods was a “blocking event” in the Jetstream over western Russia. This was an interruption in the movement of Jetstream winds that caused an area of high pressure, a “heat dome”, to stay over Russia for a long time, causing historic heat waves there. It also drew monsoon air currents over Pakistan on the way towards Russia, resulting in the floods.

Now, we have high temperatures of epic proportions to the north in Russia again. The current Siberian heat wave is much greater than what happened in 2010. Reports are saying that this is also being caused by a heat dome, a ridge of high pressure, over Siberia. No doubt, the cause of it is the same as in 2010.

That should be cause for alarm. On the other hand, the 2010 high pressure system was over European Russia, whereas the current one is to the east in Siberia. It may not be easy for air currents to travel from South Asia to that region due to the Himalayas standing in the way. But the situation is still dangerously similar to 2010. The heat dome seems to cover western Siberia, which is right next to European Russia. And while there have been severe summer Siberian heat domes since 2016 without Pakistan seeing major floods, the sheer scale of the current phenomenon in Siberia may be enough to influence the Asian summer monsoon, especially during what is likely to become a La Nina year. The danger may not be very big, but we should not discount the possibility that the extreme weather events being seen in Russia could have dangerous implications for Pakistan.

Earlier this year, there were two predictions that were made about June. One was that the locust populations in and around Pakistan would expand 500 times. The other was that 20 million people in Pakistan could become infected by SARS-CoV-2 in the absence of strict containment measures. Both of these predictions have thankfully not come to pass. But imagine if they did, if the region was overflowing with so many locusts and such a large chunk of Pakistan’s population was infected with many being ill (or, alternatively, that stringent containment measures were maintained, severely weakening the county), and then imagine that in the monsoon season right afterwards, a repeat of the titanic deluge of 2010 occurred. This, our very worst-case scenario, would be unimaginable. It would likely be an apocalypse. Pakistan might just collapse.

That is not a big concern now (although it is chilling to think that such a thing is possible). But a repeat of the 2010 floods could still be within the realm of possibility. If such a natural disaster, made possible by climate change, happened once, it could happen again and climate change has had a whole decade to progress further. Those floods were one of the worst humanitarian and economic calamities in Pakistan’s history. To this day, the trauma they caused loom large in the nation’s collective memory. Now imagine if such an event happened now, during the coronavirus pandemic and locust upsurge, just imagine how vastly greater the disaster would be.

We have to stay on our guard for the possibility of this, although this bad a scenario will very likely not end up materializing. A very specific set of circumstances were behind the 2010 floods and we are just not seeing that now. Nonetheless, the danger of a strong monsoon with major flooding is big. There is such a chance every year and it should be particularly high this year given the meteorological circumstances at present. We could see very violent floods causing immense damage in areas like the northwest. We could see floods covering large areas and persisting for long periods of times. We could see flash floods in various places. The major rivers may overflow. There could be outburst floods, particularly glacial lake outburst floods, which could cause extreme devastation in the mountain areas and even far downstream across Pakistan.

I would say a good chance exists this year of monsoon flooding like that which Pakistan experienced in 2012. This is enough to bring the nation to its knees. By the time the monsoon season is over, we perhaps will have locust numbers hundreds of times greater and several million coronavirus infections. Whatever the case, the state of crisis will continue afterwards. Typically, a monsoon season brings natural disasters which wreak havoc and leave Pakistan reeling for some time, but when the season ends, the recovery beings and we start picking up the pieces. But now, whatever the monsoon brings, we will be in for a long road of hardship as the pandemic and the locust invasions continue their course. No recovery from monsoon disasters will be accorded us.

So this is how perilous the times are for Pakistan now. We don’t want to be pessimistic and engage in fear-mongering, but it is a duty inherent in disaster risk management to consider every possible scenario and assess their probabilities and then devise measures to be employed in case they become real. Anything bad that could happen, we have to be warned about it, so this is what this article has done for the upcoming months. Things may very well not go nearly as bad as suggested, but we have to hope for the best and expect the worst. We then have to prepare for every contingency.

So what can we do about the unprecedented risks we face? That will be very difficult to answer. We should avail what time we have to make preparations, although there is not much, and we have to devise strategies for how to respond to the disasters that are imminent. But the challenges are immense.

In times of humanitarian crisis, Pakistan often finds relief to some extent from aid coming from abroad. But as the coronavirus pandemic is a disaster affecting the entire world, particularly rich countries, and as there are also various other disasters, as well as social, political, and international tensions and upheavals, that many countries have to deal with, we can rely on that no longer. Humanitarian assistance largely depends upon the less fortunate being helped by the more fortunate, but it will now be every country for itself in the days ahead.

Given the extremely complex dynamics inherent in the intersection between the coronavirus pandemic, locust upsurge, and standard monsoon hazards such as flooding, we will have to be very sophisticated in our analytical techniques in order to understand how our imminent disaster risks may play out and how we can respond to them. It may also be useful to look to East Africa as an example, since that region is already experiencing the triple-crisis of coronavirus, locusts, and extreme flooding (https://blog.ucsusa.org/rachel-cleetus/flooding-locusts-and-covid-19-a-triple-disaster-for-eastern-africa), though their experiences up to now may not compare to what is possible for Pakistan (and other countries) in the coming months. Useful lessons can also be draw from many other examples, particularly flood events striking societies where COVID-19 is spreading, as this article explains, https://www.dawn.com/news/1568505/flood-management.

It also explains some mitigation strategies for the unique hazards of the 2020 monsoon season. Going into detail about how to manage our imminent disaster risks will take too much space here, but here is one need of ours that is particularly crucial. Pakistan will need to create flood shelters in which physical distancing can be enabled. That will likely mean repurposing a lot of buildings as flood shelters, using spacious shelters, or compartmentalizing buildings, such as by setting up cardboard walls. And we absolutely must mobilize resources so we can have enough masks, soaps, hand sanitizers, medicines, and ventilators to provide to everyone who is in need.

Different strategies are in existence for managing the coronavirus pandemic, locust invasions, and Pakistan’s typical monsoon flooding, but when these dangers are all combined, we have to integrate our response strategies and modify them to suit this situation. They are not three disasters occurring at the same time in the same place. They together make up one disaster. That is how we are to treat it. There are going to be many dilemmas we will have to contend with as we try to find solutions. For example, should we enforce a strict lockdown till possible disastrous floods arrive so that levels of coronavirus infections are as low as possible by then? Or if the coronavirus spreads as quickly as possible before then, would it dampen the potential for widespread illness during monsoon flooding? We can treat coronavirus patients better now than we probably will be able during outbreaks of extreme weather.

Most importantly, the authorities in Pakistan have to turn their attitude around. The response we are showing to the current crises so far are less than satisfactory. We are yet to find a clear-cut strategy to handling the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, many different areas of the government are bickering with each other. Our lack of preparedness for the monsoon season is already being demonstrated by the way the heavy rainfall in cities like Karachi is being handled. Widespread clogging of drains is causing the streets to fill up with water. They are still far from being cleared. There are widespread traffic jams, even preventing ambulances from quickly reaching their destinations. Widespread power outages have occurred and, where they are not happening, electrocutions are common. Some news reports describe Karachi as descending into chaos when monsoon rains arrived on July 6.

Perhaps the best we can do to overcome the various disaster risks we face is to manage the disastrous state of governance in Pakistan. It is a crisis of organization and of willpower that is holding our nation back. We need to immediately solve this situation. Not only should the government become fit, but everybody needs to get involved in disaster risk management, contributing whatever abilities and capacities they have.

We should not at all be in fear that some mega-disaster like the worst-case scenarios described above will lay waste to the nation. But we are in an unprecedented state of crisis and it is certainly going to get worse in the months ahead. There is no way to be certain how worse, so we have to expect anything. The troubles we are dealing with are not going to go away any time soon. What happens in 2020, and very likely in 2021 as the pandemic and the pestilence might still be ongoing by the time the next summer monsoon arrive, will bear long-term consequences for our nation. Pakistan is facing one of the greatest tests in its history, with the next three months being the most critical period. The future of the nation depends on how we manage this test.

There are catastrophes looming on the horizon, and our duty now is to avert them and keep the people of Pakistan safe.

How did the Crash of Flight PK8303 Happen?

As Pakistan mourned the crash of flight PK8303 in Karachi that occurred before the Eid holidays and as the deceased were being identified, an investigation into the cause of the crash was speedily conducted and is ongoing. Immediately after it happened, the crash was covered here; (https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2020/05/23/crash-of-airplane-pk8303-in-karachi/). It presented a great deal of initial speculation as to the cause of the tragedy. Since then, with the passage of weeks, a lot more information has come out and many theories have been constructed. The black box was recovered from the airplane wreckage and its data has been gathered. The government of Pakistan has promised that an initial inquiry report on the accident will be released on June 22 and a full report will arrive a few months later. But enough information, gleamed from records of communication between pilot and air traffic control, eyewitness accounts, and forensic investigation, has already been made public to provide us with a concise scenario of how the plane crashed. However, there is still much uncertainty about what exactly happened.

We know that the airplane, an Airbus A320 jet airliner that took off from Lahore on a 90-minute flight, aborted its first landing attempt at Jinnah International Airport and made a go-around (circling around to make the same landing). The pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, reported dual engine failure and then issued a mayday alert to air traffic control. Transmission was then lost and the plane, on its final landing approach, veered off course and crashed into a residential area known as Model Colony. Only two of the 99 people onboard have survived and, at first, there were only injuries among people on the ground. However, a 12-year old girl injured in the plane crash later tragically passed away (https://www.samaa.tv/news/pakistan/2020/06/12-year-old-injured-in-pk-8303-crash-passes-away-in-karachi/).

Before going any further, we should all be aware of the fact that the pilot, Captain Sajjad Gul, appears to have steered his plane to avoid hitting homes so that the plane landed in the middle of a neighborhood road. This is truly an immensely heroic act that a person on the verge of death did to protect others. It undoubtedly saved many people, as the Model Colony neighborhood the plane crashed into was densely populated. Sources describe it as being congested. Yet, no doubt thanks to the pilot’s quick thinking and composure, casualties among people on the ground have been light.

Just as commendable is the heroism of the rescue workers, professionals and ordinary people, who worked to recover victims from the crash zone under great danger, braving high temperatures and a massive fire that broke out around the crash site, while the congested layout of the neighborhood made delivery of relief efforts challenging. Then there are the medical personnel, tirelessly working to treat the injured and getting themselves prepared to treat any injured even as the severe coronavirus outbreak in Sindh has stretched the healthcare sector thin. The agencies of Pakistan tasked with safety and relief have done a commendable job responding to the plane crash.

Also critically important is the job of those who are working to find out how it was that the plane crashed, information that will aid us in improving safety standards to prevent such an accident from happening again. I believe that this awareness is more urgently needed right now than we may think, because this plane crash has not come at an ordinary time for Pakistan and for its aviation sector. We happen to be in unprecedented circumstances, a time of enormous crisis and disruption all across the nation, indeed the world, and this current situation could be a factor in the PIA plane crashing. If so, then we are likely in imminent danger of further aviation accidents/incidents during the time we are in and we need to respond quickly.

First, let us look at the facts available. Sources said early on that a technical issue, most likely failure to deploy the undercarriage, or landing gear, caused the plane to abort landing. Two runways were then offered to the plane. However, instead of utilizing them, the plane made a go-around. Then, according to the air traffic control communications, another technical fault occurred, failure of both the plane’s turbofan engines, which is corroborated by a lot of evidence. Eyewitness reports suggest that the plane’s wings were on fire. The plane flew into the neighborhood while its front part was tilted upwards, which is a sign it was trying to ascend. Photos of the airplane wreckage on the ground show the blades of the turbofan engine to be undamaged, which suggest that they were not turning when the plane crashed.

Records of air traffic communications are reported to have revealed a grave pilot error that took place before the crash. Apparently, the airplane was too high in altitude when it was approaching the airport runway. ATC warned the pilot to lower the airplane but he ignored those warnings and descended too close to the runway, resulting in the plane travelling at a dangerously high speed when it was first about to land. Sajjad Gul is a senior pilot with 24 years of experience in the airline industry.

A preliminary report by the Civil Aviation Authority (detailed here https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/663140-new-questions-rise-over-plane-crash-report-on-crash-causes-in-90-days), who declared that they found skid marks on the first runway the plane attempted to land on, suggests that after the landing gear failed to deploy while the plane was landing, the plane flew so low that the jet engines, but not the belly, scraped the ground three times and were damaged. The plane climbed back into the air again. The aircrew failed to notify air traffic control of landing gear failure until the plane was making a go-around to retry the same landing. The plane ascended to 3,000 feet but could not hold the altitude, perhaps because fuel was leaking, and then tilted, upon which the crash happened.

Multiple things are being reported as having gone wrong at the end of the plane’s journey, but if they are true, they may all be connected. It is possible that when the plane was landing at a high speed, the crew was busy trying to slow it down and forgot to deploy the landing gear in the process. Then the plane engines were damaged by scraping the runway and so malfunctioned in the air, resulting in the plane coming down.

This explanation, or some variant thereof, of how the plane crashed may very well be true. But when it comes to the broader picture of what made the disaster possible, the timing of the plane crash is something that is very important to note. It happened just after airplanes like PK8303 were back in the air after a long nationwide grounding, part of an unprecedented worldwide drop in air travel due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Pakistan, all commercial flights were banned on 29 March. The ban on domestic flights was lifted on 16 May in time for the Eid holidays, which came just after the day the plane crashed. This has been a very difficult and unique time for the aviation industry in Pakistan and the entire world, one that nobody was prepared for. A two-month grounding of airplanes throughout the country is unprecedented. The pandemic and severe economic problems are also disrupting everything in Pakistan and making life for everybody very hard. This backdrop to the plane crash therefore naturally leads us to one question: did the impact of the coronavirus pandemic play a part in the plane crash?

According to a summary report by aviation authorities, PK8303, which had been flying for sixteen years, was grounded under the virus lockdown between March 22 and May 7, after which it did six flights while reporting no defects. It last underwent a routine inspection the day before 21 March and the last major check was on October 19, 2019. This long hiatus in safety inspection may have caused technical defects with the plane to go unnoticed before it resumed flight. Also, when a plane is grounded for a long period of time, it is supposed to undergo test flights before resuming normal operations to make sure its performance is fine. This seems not to have happened with PK8303.

Aviation safety relies a great deal upon the financial capacity of the aviation industry. Making sure flying is safe can be so expensive that, sometimes, airliners tarry at this job in order to save costs. It is a big problem at the best of times, especially for an airliner of a developing country like PIA, but the coronavirus pandemic is putting the aviation industry on the verge of a financial catastrophe. Because of the total grounding of flights, airline companies are making much less money while still maintaining their fleets. The government is supposed to help out, but it is very difficult for ours to do so when it has to deal with the unprecedented coronavirus crisis all over the country and with severe economic problems stemming from other causes, including a severe, long-running locust outbreak and inflation. Plus, virus restrictions impact all activities of life. Airline employees likely could not do their normal job without great risk. In this battle to fight the virus that has taken the country by storm, it must have become harder for aviation to guard against other threats. They might also be tempted to relax safety standards to preserve what little profitability is possible.

Even after the lockdown on planes was lifted, the airlines continue to operate under great strain. Far fewer people are flying than in normal times, which means that airlines continue to be short on cash. There has been a rush as Pakistanis wanted to go back to their hometown to be with their families for Eid, but social distancing measures meant that most passenger planes are occupied far below their full capacity, with every second seat being kept empty. This SOP fortunately prevented PK 8303 from being one of the deadliest plane crashes in Pakistan’s history. Also, the air travel industry has an enormous responsibility to ensure the coronavirus is not spread by air travel, whether it is by infected people traveling to other places or transmission taking place during flight, when lots of people are crammed into a tight space. Airliners now have to save the world in addition to making sure their planes land safely. It is a huge burden that may have stressed PIA’s capacity to a dangerous level.

All in all, the enormous challenges that aviation is going through as a result of the pandemic may have compromised the maintenance and inspection of airplanes, causing technical defects to build-up and go unnoticed. Whether or not this is what made the crash of PK8303 possible, it is a hazard that very likely exists. We cannot ignore this risk. We must recognize that more plane accidents could occur in the days ahead because of the impact of the pandemic on aviation and we have to take action against the threat. We need to conduct a risk assessment to investigate just how aviation safety is being affected by current circumstances. As difficult as it may be during the pandemic, we must pay extra attention to maintaining aviation safety standards, making sure that all airplanes are thoroughly inspected and well-maintained and subjecting planes to adequate testing before resumption of their normal duties. Matters will only get worse if planes start crashing in the middle of a severe pandemic.

It is widely presumed that a malfunction due to internal factors with the ill-fated plane caused it to crash. But there is also the possibility of an external factor that caused damage to the plane while it was flying. Engine failure is generally considered to be a cause of the plane crash, but as for what caused this failure, jet engines are vulnerable to spontaneous malfunction but are also vulnerable to whatever goes into the engine while it is operating. Jet engines suck in a tremendous amount of air, but we always hope that it is only air going into it, because if solid objects collide with the engines, it can cause serious damage and sometimes an accident like what happened with flight PK8303.

When a plane is in the air, such collisions are usually with birds, and indeed, several experts have already entertained the idea of a “bird strike” contributing to the plane crash in Karachi. Birds always impact with flying planes at very high speed, which means they hit with such strong force that various parts of the plane can be damaged. But jet engines are the most vulnerable. A bird being ingested in there can cause the fan blades to buckle in a domino effect that causes engine failure. If the bird’s body goes behind the blades, it can cause some deeper damage resulting in fuel leakage, which can start a fire in the engine. Birds can also strike and damage panels on the airplane wings, such as flaps and ailerons, when they are open, creating difficulty with controlling the plane’s movement at crucial moments, like landing. Bird strikes usually happen when passenger planes are taking off or landing, as airplanes usually fly at altitudes too high for birds.

The bigger a bird is, the more dangerous a strike can be. There are a lot of large birds in Karachi, including vultures, so a hit with one could definitely have taken down the Airbus plane. But if a plane runs into a flock of birds, it is also very dangerous as many birds might collide. It could explain why both engines of the PK8303 plane failed, as birds could have gone into both at the same time. We may need eyewitness and video accounts to tell us if there were birds over Jinnah International Airport at the time the airplane crashed. Also, if a bird strike indeed happened, we should be able to find the bird remains (known as “snarge” in aviation speak) in the airplane wreckage.

We should keep in mind that birds are not the only animals that fly. In fact, right now, one other type of animal is buzzing in the skies over Pakistan in great numbers, because enormous locust swarms have been invading the region for several months now. It is believed to be the biggest locust invasion in 70 years and some of the swarms are the size of major cities. Locusts began swarming in East Africa in 2018 and they very quickly reached Pakistan, where Karachi was inundated by locusts in November 2019 for the first time since 1961. The locust swarms within Pakistan have only been getting stronger since then as locusts are breeding in our farmlands. Pakistan declared a state of emergency over them in February and FAO predicted that swarms across Africa and Asia will further explode in numbers by June, a month that has just arrived.

Desert locusts, the species involved, are large insects and fly in dense formations. Any plane that flies through a swarm could potentially receive a big load of locusts. One locust may not do a lot of damage, but a large number of locusts getting splattered onto even a large passenger jet plane can possibly have a serious impact. Had PK8303 engaged in such a contact with any of the vast locust swarms overrunning Pakistan, it might have enabled the crashing of the plane.

Caution already exist in the aviation world against planes flying through locust swarms. In September 2010, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) issued a national notice to pilots about the dangers that locusts, swarming in Australia at that time, posed to aircraft. It said that locusts could be smeared on the windscreen and reduce visibility and could block engine intakes and overheat the engines, making failure possible. The insects could also clog the pitot tubes of an airplane, therefore causing difficulty in accurately reading the plane’s airspeed. As for the current locust swarms across Africa and Asia, an official warning so far has been issued just a few days ago by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) that the locust swarms that recently entered India have become so big that these pose an aviation hazard. They warned of instruments and sensors being damaged by locusts, air intake inlets being clogged, and locusts being smeared on the windshield.

The engine failure the doomed PIA plane is believed to have suffered before crashing on May 22 could have happened due to both jet engines ingesting enough locusts. Locusts are not soft objects. They have an exoskeleton made out of a tough material known as chitin, so it’s definitely not good for such things to go into the engine of a flying plane. And then there is the effect locust collisions could have on the plane’s instruments and sensors, which allow the pilot to know important things like how fast the plane is going. If reports of pilot error on PK8303 are true, then they could have been caused by locust strikes. For instance, if the pitot tubes of the airplane were clogged by locusts and the pilot could not accurately read the airspeed, it could have caused him to approach the runway at too high a speed or to veer off course on the second landing attempt or when the engines failed. We can be pretty certain that locusts did not get smeared over the windshield or the pilot would certainly have reported it.

Southern Sindh is a hotbed of locust swarming in Pakistan right now. So it is possible that PK8303 encountered such a swarm as it made its ill-fated approach to Jinnah International Airport. There have been recent reports of locust swarms in proximity to Karachi, such as this news item on May 5 that said locusts were attacking Karachi suburbs (https://arynews.tv/en/locusts-swarms-attack-crops-in-suburban-areas-of-karachi/). However, Karachi is not being inundated by locusts the way it was in late 2019 and the sighting of a locust swarm over Karachi the day the PIA airplane crashed has not been reported. Nevertheless, Flight PK8303 could have been struck by locusts at any time during its last journey. It took off from Lahore and flew straight to Karachi, which placed its flight trajectory right across Punjab and Sindh, Pakistan’s breadbaskets and therefore prime territory for locust swarming.

Commercial airliners, however, spend most of their flight at an altitude too high for locusts. Locusts can only fly at very low elevations and PK8303 could not possibly have encountered any while it was cruising between Lahore and Karachi. The only times when airplanes are likely to encounter flying locusts is when they are taking off and landing. There is a strong possibility of this happening to PK8303 during these two stages in its last flight, given that Lahore and Karachi are both right in the middle of locust territory. According to statistics compiled by the FAO, while the majority of locust breeding in Pakistan is taking place in Balochistan, the rest is in southern Sindh and northeastern Punjab, exactly where those two cities are (https://tribune.com.pk/story/2230538/2-locust-attack-poses-famine-risk/). Adult locusts also have a strong presence in these areas. Even if the doomed airplane did not strike locusts while trying to land in Karachi, it could have done so shortly after taking off in Lahore, which could have ended up contributing to the crash more than an hour later. If the jet engines were what sustained the fatal damage, the reason they failed only when the plane was landing could be because plane engines are under particularly high strain during the landing phase, so PK8303’s engines would be unable to cope with this action even as they were able to carry the plane along on its 90-minute voyage. If instruments and sensors were damaged, they could have ended up being problematic only during landing.

Furthermore, there is also the possibility that PK8303 sustained damage from locust strikes at any time in its flight history since it was last checked on 21 March or thoroughly inspected on October 19 last year. It could have been struck by individual locusts several times during the locust upsurge in the region, thereby gradually sustaining damage. This damage would be unnoticed for some time but, sooner or later, it would end up triggering a major accident.

If the current locust invasions are responsible for playing a part in the crash of PK8303, it may not necessarily be strikes with the locusts themselves that the airplane experienced. Collisions with birds are much more dangerous than collisions with locusts, but a locust upsurge can raise the likelihood of both. That is because a lot of birds, including birds of large sizes, eat locusts, so wherever there are a lot more locusts in the sky, there are always going to be a lot more birds, and wherever there are a lot more birds, the danger to airplanes is a lot higher. Israel, for instance, has to deal with a very high bird-strike risk because the country lies on a migratory bird route.

Birds usually find their food on or close to the ground and therefore spend a lot of time either keeping their two feet on land or flying too low to encounter airplanes. But a locust swarm means an enormous feast right up there in the sky, a rare spectacle that any insectivorous bird will eagerly take advantage of the entire time it lasts. Also, if locusts are swarming in a particular area, birds far and wide will travel to that area, crowding in the air above it. Finally, the current locust upsurge of Africa and Asia has been going on since mid-2018 and hovering around Pakistan since mid-2019. In that amount of time, the bird populations in the affected regions could have grown. All in all, the skies over Pakistan and the wider region around it have become a lot more crowded and airplanes must now find it much more difficult to avoid running into creatures with either feathers or six legs.

The tragic crash of PK8303 in Karachi on May 22, 2020, may have come about, in part, due to the locust upsurge and the way it is filling the skies with winged objects. It could also have come about due to the coronavirus pandemic and the way it is sucking money from airlines and throwing the aviation industry into a storm of difficulties. But even if these two upheavals of our time have nothing to do with the recent plane crash that took the lives of 98 people, the dangers they pose to aviation is still there and very real. Therefore, there is a heightened chance that further airplane mishaps and disasters will occur in the times we are in.

This means we have to be extra vigilant and take into account the aviation hazards outlined above. If we continue with forbidding mass passenger air travel from occurring, as Pakistan and many other countries have done during the coronavirus lockdowns, it may be a good policy. In this time of overarching crisis, we might decide that only essential goods and people will be traveling by air. But if we continue to allow airplanes to occupy the skies and people to occupy those airplanes, we have to identify the additional risks they currently face and mitigate those risks. We need to make sure that airlines maintain their usual safety standards while handling the novel challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. If any airline company is being tempted to cut costs, we need to be able to find out and to discipline them. Airline companies should also be provided with financial assistance from the government or from donations during the coronavirus crisis. Locust swarms have to be closely monitored so we can detect locust presence near airports or air routes. Every measure must be undertaken to keep locusts and birds away from these sensitive areas. If need be, we remove all crops and vegetation that are in proximity to urban areas, perhaps by allowing locusts to deplete them quickly, so planes can take-off and land safely.

Aviation safety and risk is, of course, a big issue at all times. A lot of work needs to be done to make aviation safe within Pakistan and, given the highly integrated nature of global aviation, we need to make sure air travel across the world is safe for Pakistanis and for people travelling on Pakistani airliners.

So as for the recent aviation disaster Pakistan has suffered just before Eid, we are waiting as the investigation proceeds. Knowing the truth is important so that the survivors, the loved ones of the victims, and the nation can have closure and so that further tragedies can be prevented. We are relying on the official investigation to come to a conclusion and we may all gravitate towards believing what seems like the most likely explanation. But we have to consider and think of every possibility in what happened. It may be said that we have to be creative, going through the information we have, not only information directly pertaining to the crash but information way beyond, coming up with any hypothesis that is possible, and see how it resonates with the facts.

For example, pilot error is being considered as a major factor in the crash. The captain apparently made a series of mistakes that could have been avoided. It makes us wonder how such an experienced pilot could have acted out this way and then we may start making judgments on him (we shouldn’t get prejudiced easily). But in relating the crash to the wider circumstances again, I thought of one possibility, which is that, what if the pilot was sick with COVID-19? The disease is spreading rapidly. People working in the airline industry are among those most likely to get infected. Serious illnesses often hamper a person’s mental and physical performance, making us sluggish or slow-witted. COVID-19, for its part, has shown signs of having a neurological impact. Many coronaviruses, also, have been known to infect the brain. As our knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 progresses, perhaps we will find out that it can impact the nervous system as well. We have to find out whether or not Sajjad Gul was suffering this way when he was in the cockpit for the last time. Was his dead body inspected for the coronavirus? Could we exhume him and find signs that he was infected?

Any possibility must be investigated.

So, what does PPLDM consider, as of this writing, to be the most likely scenario? Well, we are almost sure about three things going wrong with the flight; the plane being on an improper trajectory on its first landing attempt, the landing gear not being lowered, and the engines failing. It is unlikely for all three events to be a coincidence, so the storyline we may consider most reliable for now is that the plane’s unusual descent trajectory caused an unstable landing, which caused the cockpit crew to forget to employ the landing gear, which caused the engines to scrape the runway, which damaged them so much that they failed and caused the plane to veer off course and descend. It must be unlikely, also, that it is a coincidence the crash happened in the time of coronavirus-induced turbulence experienced by aviation and just after a long air grounding in Pakistan. If a malfunction was the primal cause of the crash, it is highly likely that technical faults were allowed to build-up in the plane during the pandemic.

However, if pilot error was the primal cause, and all malfunctions were the result of that, how can we relate this to the pandemic? Maybe the pilot was stressed by this and other circumstances affecting Pakistanis at that time. Maybe his thinking was impacted. We can also allow the possibility of human error and malfunction coinciding. So the scenario can be that the pilot steered the plane on an unstable descent path and this combined with a (possibly pandemic-induced) problem with the landing gear or the warning systems resulted in the landing gear failing, and the rest followed.

We watch as the investigation into the causes of the plane crash proceeds and we wait for the official results of the investigation to be released to the public. Hopefully, this investigation is being conducted in a fair, honest and intelligent manner so we can really know what happened.

Crash of Airplane PK8303 in Karachi

Update: Six days after the publication of the following brief, and after an article appeared in the Pakistani press about avian hazard https://pakobserver.net/what-is-pakistan-aviations-sop-on-avian-hazard-management/, the Government of India issued warning to its aviation sector about the hazards locust swarms pose to aircraft (https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/665220-india-warns-airlines-of-locust-swarm-flight-risk). On June 7, Pakistan also started taking measures to protect airplanes from locust strikes (https://tribune.com.pk/story/2237507/1-fearing-aircraft-damage-caa-launches-anti-locust-spray-campaign-jinnah-terminal/). We welcome this development and hope all regional airlines follow suit as we continue to campaign for upholding safety standards in aviation during this unprecedented time.

Following policy brief was issued by PPLDM on 23 May, 2020, after the tragic passenger plane crash in Karachi.

PK8303, an Airbus A320 passenger plane belonging to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), en route from Lahore, was approaching to land at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi when it crashed into a residential area. According to reports that have come out so far, the airplane made an attempt to land which was aborted and, as the plane circled around and made a second attempt, it missed the runway by only a few hundred feet, an extremely short distance in aviation terms, and collided with houses in a densely-crowded residential area called “Model Colony,” destroying several of them. The pilot issued a mayday just before this happened.

The airplane was carrying 91 passengers and eight crew (according to reports so far). At least 80 people are confirmed dead. It is unclear yet if the dead were all onboard the plane or if the toll includes people on the ground where the plane crashed. Households in Pakistan tend to have a lot of family members and, because of coronavirus, a lot of people across Pakistan are indoors. The plane crash took place during Ramadan, when Muslims are often homebound during afternoon, although due to the time of crash coinciding with Friday prayer, most men were out of their homes, praying at mosques. Therefore, it is likely that many people were in the houses that were struck. On the other hand, the plane was half-full because of covid-19 fears and related regulations. Due to the crash taking place at the end of an hour-long flight, the amount of jet fuel involved in the resultant fire is low. Two passengers so far are confirmed as having survived the crash, along with 11 or so people from the neighborhood who are reported to be injured. That of course means that they are still alive as I write. Whether their lives will be saved altogether, we have to wait and see for the following days and weeks. Right now, first responders and rescue workers are valiantly working to retrieve bodies from the rubble as fires rage and smoke billows at the site of airplane’s wreckage and surrounding houses and streets.

The plane crash comes just before the arrival of the Eid-ul-Fitr holidays and days after coronavirus lockdown was lifted in Pakistan and commercial flights were allowed. This tragedy comes at a very difficult time for Pakistan and for the whole world. Five million people have already been infected by the coronavirus globally, most of them in a handful of countries. Pakistan is one of the countries where the pandemic is at medium level. Domestic flights were allowed so that Pakistanis could return to their hometowns to spend Eid. PK8303 was one of the planes filled with such people. Due to the crash, a state of emergency was declared in hospitals across Karachi, at a time when hospitals and healthcare workers across the nation are already overstretched. Taking care of people injured due to the plane crash will be a challenge if the injured turn out to be a lot. The upside is that healthcare facilities are on high alert at all times due to the pandemic, so they have been able to respond rapidly. However, providing care to plane crash victims is very different from caring for coronavirus patients, as former requires trauma and burn units.

Information has been coming out rapidly about the crash. Recordings of communications with air traffic control reveal that the pilot made an attempt to land which was aborted, telling air traffic controllers that it was because of a technical issue. He circled around and made a second attempt when he reported loss of engine power. He then issued a mayday alert before the transmission ended, upon which the plane crashed. Reports suggest that the first landing attempt failed because landing great did not deploy. The pilot was told to climb to higher altitude but the plane apparently lost power and was gliding when it missed the runway. It is believed that both the plane engines failed. Reportedly, the tail end of the plane struck the ground first. Survivors must have been from the front part of the plane. Eyewitnesses are reported to have said the airplane was on fire before it crashed on the ground. Right now, we can only conjecture about the cause of the crash. We might get a clear idea of how the accident happened when we open up the black box.

Failure of the jet engines is the likely cause of the crash, but what was the cause of engine failure? If both engines failed and failure of the landing gear also happened, it means the plane suffered from multiple technical faults. In such case, there could have been technical defect/s in the plane that were missed during routine inspections. However, engine failure can also happen if something collides with the engines of a jet airplane. Jet engines, which face forward and suck in air with tremendous force to provide power and thrust, become extremely vulnerable if any object is ingested. Even ice sloughing off the airplane can cause damage. The turbines can be seriously damaged and even fail. Usually, it is collision with birds that causes this sort of thing. Bird strikes are one of the world’s biggest aviation hazards, causing damage even to airplane parts other than engines. This might have happened with flight PK8303 today.

At present, there is another strong speculative candidate that may have struck the airplane in Karachi, locusts. Since December of last year, desert locusts have been swarming across eastern Africa and western Asia in truly biblical numbers. In Pakistan, massive swarms caused a state of emergency to be declared in February and are only getting stronger. Sindh has been suffering from dreadful attack of locusts for months now, even breeding in much of the province right now, and Karachi has been experiencing swarms for the first time since 1961. Could it be possible, then, that collision with locusts caused the airplane to lose control? Desert locusts are very large insects with very tough cuticle exoskeletons. Their swarms can be very dense. A lot of damage can be caused if a plane runs into a swarm and collides with a large number of these insects.

The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) once issued a warning to pilots in 2010 about the dangers of flying through a locust swarm. The warning said it could cause loss of engine power and loss of visibility, as expected, and the locusts could also block the aircraft’s pitot tubes, causing inaccurate airspeed readings. (https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/national/aircraft-warned-to-avoid-flying-in-locust-plague-areas/news-story/f3710161cfa721e6cd69898c7dd97402)

If run-in with either a swarm of locusts or a flock of birds happened to PK 8303, it could explain why both engines failed at the same time. The animals would have gone into both. Loss of visibility probably did not happen, or the pilot would have reported it. However, if locusts clogged up the airspeed reading device, it could have prevented the pilot from being able to accurately land his plane on the runway, causing the aborted landing attempt and maybe even the plane flying into the neighborhood next to the runway. Bird or locust strikes are a high possibility when a plane is at low altitude. If a big and dense flock of swarms is involved, eyewitnesses should be able to spot and report them.

Alternatively, even only a few birds could have been responsible for downing the airplane. If so, could it still be connected with the locust outbreaks? Whenever a plane suffers a serious bird strike, it is often because there is large number of birds in the air. More birds entail a greater likelihood of bird-plane collisions. Could it be, then, that the PIA airplane crashed because of collisions with birds that were following the locusts? With such large locust swarms, one should expect that birds will also be gathering in large number to prey on locusts. Even if no locusts were present in Karachi today, birds may have been crossing the city on their way to locust hunting. We need to examine whether the locust plagues have been causing a denser gathering of birds in the sky.

PPLDM has been deeply concerned about the tremendous damage to our food supply that the locusts have been wreaking. While air travel is slowly resuming as coronavirus restrictions ease, we also need to be on the lookout for the additional traffic hazards that locust swarms pose. They could even be a hazard to traffic on the road, including motorcyclists. Studies have suggested people on motorbikes can be seriously injured if they collide with flying insects, presumably of kinds much smaller than locusts, at high speed. As we strive to ensure that the coronavirus pandemic is not worsened by people flying by air, we need to take into account another distinct hazard these days, avian threats to plane’s structure, and issue proper aviation warnings on this hazard. We are already ensuring that the virus is not transmitted inside airplanes by issuing SOPs. What is the SOP on avian hazard warning, a particularly high concern at present? We also need to educate media about this hazard so it can pressurize civil aviation management to cancel flights if plausible extraneous hazards are detected.

Also, because today’s plane crash in Karachi took place during the coronavirus pandemic and an unprecedented drop in global air travel, we should also consider if there is a connection between the two. The grounding of airlines for months and the disruptions caused by the pandemic might have resulted in lax maintenance and inspection of aircraft. I imagine that the keeping up of air safety standards could have been running into some challenges during an unprecedented time like this which nobody has prepared for or is used to. If a passenger jet crashes right after the country’s air travel has resumed following a record-breaking hiatus, and while air traffic is under high burden due to the Eid holidays (trying to keep passengers apart and boarding low when so many people must be trying to get on a plane), there is a good chance it is not a coincidence.

Still, this plane crash is far from unusual within Pakistan or for a Pakistani airliner, unfortunately. Pakistan has a poor air safety record. Major air accidents with significant casualties have occurred every few years throughout the nation’s history. Since the start of this year alone, there have already been five plane crashes before PK8303, though they were all of small aircraft with few people involved. The first was an aircraft that was spraying pesticides to fight locusts when it crashed on January 12, killing two people onboard, and the rest were of military aircraft, including a fighter jet crashing at Shakar Parian Islamabad while practicing for Pakistan Day parade. Two of the military crashes caused fatalities of people onboard.

The enormous tragedy that has occurred in Karachi today has delivered shock and trauma to a nation reeling under the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and locust plagues and will dampen the spirit of Eid celebrations for us all – celebrations that have already been physically suppressed due to the virus. This is the first time in a few years that a massive and sudden tragedy occurred in Pakistan just before the start of Eid holidays marking the end of Ramadan. The other time was on June 25, 2017, when an oil tanker on a highway in rural Punjab crashed and ignited spilt oil while a huge crowd of people was present, killing more than two hundred and injuring many more. (See “Tragedy at Bahawalpur” at https://pldmsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/first-blog-post/)

History has also repeated itself with this sudden high-casualty disaster occurring in Pakistan while the nation is coping with a much larger crisis of longer duration. Ten years ago, on July 28, an Airbus A321, Airblue Flight 202, crashed in the Margalla Hills north of Islamabad due to heavy fog and rainfall, killing all 152 on board, just as two months of monsoon rainfall began that would cause record-breaking floods submerging a fifth of Pakistan, killing 2,000 Pakistanis, and directly affecting 20 million. To this day, Airblue Flight 202 remains the deadliest aviation accident in Pakistan’s history and the 2010 monsoon floods the biggest natural disaster to ever strike Pakistan in terms of the number of people impacted.

2020 is a year of enduring challenges and countless tragedies for the world. As our nation grapples with the tragedy that transpired on 22 May, the difficult truth is that we have to continue to contend with tremendous challenges and crises in the days ahead and for the foreseeable future. There will be no respite. Eid is always supposed to be a joyous occasion for Muslims everywhere, but this Eid, we cannot go out for customary shopping, festivities, and social gatherings on account of social distancing. Widespread food shortages and economic hardships also persist across the nation. The least we hoped for was that people be able to spend Eid with their loved ones, but now, around 100 or so Pakistani Muslim families will be deprived forever of a beloved member. They will spend Eid in deep mourning and the rest of us will spend Eid with dampened spirit.

We may be bewildered by the way so many adversarial circumstances are coming together to harm us, but we must persevere. We must resolve that we will endure the hardships we are going through and be strong in the face of the losses we have suffered. Furthermore, we have to be adaptable, innovative, and smart in the face of everything that this year is throwing at us. It is the only way we can overcome the highly complex and novel challenges that Pakistan and the entire world is going through. This is a time of enormous struggle for our nation. There is no way to tell when the struggle will be over and where it will lead us, but we have to continue fighting with determination and do anything we can to fight back. When we succeed, we will emerge from this era stronger than before.

PAKISTAN FACES TWIN THREATS OF PANDEMIC AND FAMINE

The following issue brief was released by PPLDM on 26/04/2020

“We should therefore be hugely alarmed that Pakistan is in the throes of what is very likely the worst pandemic and worst food crisis of the twenty-first century both at the same time. The outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts may together overcome our modern defenses against disease and starvation and, because the rest of the world is so badly affected, Pakistan should not expect much relief coming from abroad.”


Pakistan, along with a large number of other countries, is currently battling two major outbreaks. One is the novel coronavirus causing the disease called COVID-19, currently sweeping the entire world. The other is the desert locust, which has been ravaging large areas of Africa and Asia for some time.

COVID-19 has so far infected nearly 3 million people globally and killed around 200,000, with the numbers continuing to rise. The virus was first discovered in Pakistan at the end of February. Since then it has been spreading rapidly throughout the country. Over 12,000 Pakistanis are now infected and no one can tell how it will turn out. In China, it appears to be dying down after two months of successful containment measures that can be tolerated by countries that have the resources to compensate for periods of low productivity. Some predict that Pakistan will see tens of millions of infections by June (https://www.dawn.com/news/1542651). The death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands.

Meanwhile, the locust swarms are being referred to as an “unprecedented threat to food security” by the UN’s Locust Watch (http://www.fao.org/ag/locusts/en/info/info/index.html). Swarms originating in East Africa started to rampage in countries including Pakistan in mid-2019 but really kicked off after 2020 began, prompting Pakistan to declare a state of national emergency when February began. The infestation has been steadily increasing in Pakistan, causing huge crop losses, and continues to persist without signs of dying down, while countries to the west are being devastated. Experts predict the coming of rising temperatures and summer rainfall might cause locust populations across the region to further explode 400-fold by June (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-africa-locusts/running-out-of-time-east-africa-faces-new-locust-threat-idUSKCN20L1TY). Who knows how much they will grow in South Asia when the summer monsoon comes.

So we now have two severe crises at the same time, one attacking our health and the other our nutrition. Our government has declared that a national lockdown policy is not feasible because the country is too poor to afford its supply chains shutting down, so the virus spread must be countered through other measures. The locust outbreak is wreaking massive economic damage and driving people to hunger, vastly aggravating this conundrum. In turn, the COVID-19 pandemic is hampering international efforts to fight the locust outbreaks. Together the calamities present Pakistan with an unprecedented challenge.

In fact, the danger looming ahead may be something greater than we could ever imagine. Pakistan is facing both an epidemic and a famine at the same time and, throughout history, epidemics and famines have both consistently been the greatest threats to human lives and well-being (besides intra-human war and violence).

Disasters in which people died of other causes usually have minute casualties by comparison. The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake in China, the deadliest known earthquake in history, killed around 830,000 according to historical accounts. The deadliest tsunami, Boxing Day 2004, killed nearly a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Cyclone Bhola, which killed anywhere from a quarter of a million to half a million in East Pakistan in 1970, is the deadliest tropical storm on record. In the same region, a tornado that killed 1,300 people in 1989 is the deadliest known tornado. The deadliest flooding, the 1931 Yangtze floods in China, is believed to have killed more than 150,000 people directly. The deadliest known volcanic eruption, 1815 eruption of Tambora, directly killed perhaps more than 10,000.

All of this is nothing compared to the enormous death tolls of history’s worst epidemics and famines, not to mention the suffering and havoc inflicted alongside. As a side effect of the above calamities, in fact, the 1815 Tambora eruption resulted in epidemics and famines that killed 60,000 people in the local region and more than 90,000 people worldwide, the so-called Year Without a Summer, while as many as four million Chinese may have died from the disease and starvation that stemmed from the 1931 Yangtze floods.

The deadliest pandemic in history is either the 1918 Spanish Flu, which may have killed as many as 50 million people, maybe even 100 million people, worldwide, or the 14th century Black Death, which killed probably as many as 200 million people across Eurasia, including perhaps as much as 60% of Europe’s population. Both pandemics were similar to COVID-19 in that they involved spread of pathogens new to the world. The worst epidemics in history were those of diseases brought to the Americas by European visitors after 1492, which wiped out 90% of American Indians, turning the continents into pristine wildernesses. The sixth century Plague of Justinian may have killed 25 million in the Eastern Mediterranean. 5 million Romans may have been killed by the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 AD. In the late 1950s, Asian flu killed 1 to 2 million worldwide.

The deadliest famine in history is the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961. Caused in part by outbreaks of insects like locusts as well as governmental mismanagement, both concerns for Pakistan right now. Upper estimates of the death toll are 36 or 45 million. As many as 25 million people may have died from the 1907 Great Qing famine in China. Three famines in India in the late 1700s killed at least ten million people. That includes the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 which may have killed a third of Bengal’s population. From 1315 to 1322, more than 7 million were killed in widespread famine across Europe. 5 million Russians starved to death during the famine caused by the Russian Civil War in 1921-22.

With this kind of record, it is clear that epidemics and famine are immensely deadly forces, even if they have been somewhat calmer in modern times. We should therefore be hugely alarmed that Pakistan is in the throes of what is very likely the worst pandemic and worst food crisis of the twenty-first century both at the same time. The outbreaks of coronavirus and locusts may together overcome our modern defenses against disease and starvation and, because the rest of the world is so badly affected, Pakistan should not expect much relief coming from abroad. Both the virus and the locust multiply extremely rapidly and have the potential to infect all people and consume all crops respectively.

All indications, therefore, are that Pakistan is in for what may be the biggest calamity in its history. We need to wake up to the unprecedented danger we are in and we need to do something. Putting Pakistan on a war footing immediately, along with the rest of the world, is perhaps our only choice. Importantly, we have to apply our minds to the task, because discovering innovative solutions that could save us will be an epic endeavor. The severity of the crisis at this stage may be nothing compared to what is coming. We need to avail this time for preparation, which will significantly improve our chances. Every effort will be worth it, for the very survival of our nation is at stake.

THIS ISSUE BRIEF HAS BEEN PREPARED BY SHAHZEB KHAN, DIRECTOR PPLDM.
Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management
PO Box 552
Islamabad PC 44000

An Age of Storms: COVID-19 Pandemic and the Weather

It’s been raining a lot in Pakistan these days. For the last several days, it has been constantly raining hard in Islamabad. It is often raining in the morning and then again in the night. There has also been heavy rainfall in other parts of the country through the month of March. Unfortunately, these rains have caused a number of deaths and serious injuries. They have even been so severe as to make houses collapse. Reportedly, 7 people in Khyber-Pakhtunkwha have recently died because of the storms. In early March, up to 24 people were reportedly killed across Pakistan.

A lot of damage has also been caused because of these rains and various other forms of severe weather occurring across the nation. Pakistanis in many areas have had to contend with heavy snowfall, freezing temperatures, hail, landslides, and minor floods. As a result, they have suffered significant agricultural losses. Wheat harvests in Bahawalpur appear to have been completely devastated. In addition, roads have been blocked, structures have been damaged, and people have suffered major disruptions of gas and electricity supply (Source: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2171627/1-24-killed-heavy-rain-wreaks-havoc-pakistan/).

Of course, such spells of bad weather are right now seemingly the least of our concerns as Pakistan battles the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it has not yet affected us severely, fear of how bad it could ultimately get is goading the nation towards extreme measures like imposing lockdowns on the population. The consequences of this contagion could be devastating for the entire country. But in this difficult time, in which everything is changing in ways we could never have imagined, experiencing the familiar sight of spring rainstorms got me thinking about what it can mean for us in our present situation.

For starters, people everywhere are supposed to stay home and limit how much they go out, including in Islamabad. The rain and cold makes it a little bit easier. People always stay indoors during rainy days. Perhaps, then, rain could be a boon for us during this pandemic. Whenever bad weather is happening somewhere, the spread of the virus probably slows down there. The rain, the cold, and the snow are keeping many Pakistanis indoors and preventing them from traveling. Landslides have also blocked a few transportation routes, which could limit the spread of the disease. We cannot rely on this weather to be any kind of saving grace, but the authorities might utilize it and formulate their coronavirus strategy in conjunction with the spells of severe weather happening across the country.

For example, they can relax their virus response in areas suffering bad weather, diverting resources and personnel from there to other places, trusting nature to keep people quarantined for the time being. Or they can send workers to weather-stricken areas to fix things up for the virus response, expecting that other people won’t go outside and potentially infect them. But it may not be all that good. The pandemic is already severely straining the country and the occurrence of any extreme event like severe weather in such a time can be disastrous.

When I took one of my rare excursions outside my home in Islamabad during one of the recent rainy days, I saw that water was flowing across the streets. I wonder if this gives us a sort of beneficial cleansing for these times. As infected people move around outside, the coronavirus they shed may end up contaminating the streets by the landing of respiratory droplets, people spitting, and the littering of objects people were touching. People who go out can get the virus on their shoes and then bring it into their homes. So if rain comes and gives the streets a cleansing, what sort of effect does this have on possible coronavirus contamination? Does the rain wash the virus away and make the ground safer? Does it also, on the other hand, spread coronavirus contamination? Does the water get to be contaminated and be therefore a COVID-19 hazard? I have no idea but I think the ecology of the virus outside the human body is more complex than we realize and we really should study it more and seek to fully understand how SARS-COV-2 moves through the environment.

In this time of unprecedented crisis, when it seems that any feasible solution is out of our grasp right now, we will need to think outside the box and get really creative. Some unusual solutions could help us in the fight the pandemic and one we should look into is welcoming the landslides. It is a regular occurrence in Pakistan’s mountainous areas. A landslide occurs, blocks travel, and then we rush with bulldozers to clear it out. But if the virus spreads through people traveling, then maybe the blocking of roads due to landslides, avalanches, rock falls, and floods could be a lifesaver. The virus outbreak is severe in Gilgit-Baltistan. If we give nature free rein to block roads there and even help it to do so, then we may have fewer of these spreaders introducing the virus to new communities while our efforts remain devoted to the handling of the pandemic.

This tactic, however, has potentially huge downsides. When people do get infected, medical care needs to be delivered to them and bad weather getting in the way of delivery is a recipe for disaster. The spread of the virus may be less but the danger it poses may be more. Also, aid workers need to be sent around to help communities safeguard against the outbreak. Lastly, keeping people supplied with the necessities of life is one of the biggest issues in this epidemic. As travel is restricted and national production slows down, bad weather closing the roads can further add to the deprivation that people already face due to COVID-19.

So if we have landslides or storms or snow blocking traffic in Pakistan, what is its net impact on society during this pandemic? Does the good it causes outweigh the bad or does the bad it causes outweigh the good? We need to conduct comprehensive situation analysis to find out and then let it inform our decisions. We are treading on a thin line in almost everything when it comes to COVID-19. It has just been announced that the authorities are sealing off one part of Pakistan, the mountainous area of Chitral, where no cases of COVID-19 are known yet (Source: https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/pakistan-seals-northern-region-with-no-covid-19-case/1788194). This is a sensible measure for any place where the virus has not gained a foothold. But where the virus has already reached and is spreading, there has to be a flow of some people there to bring aid. It wouldn’t really matter if any of them carry the virus because the virus is already there.

Sealing off travel can be quickly implemented and quickly reversed by the authorities at will. But if some untoward phenomenon like the weather gets involved in this, we can only observe what will happen. I wonder what would be the consequences of an event like the 2010 Attabad landslide happening right now (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/43175/landslide-lake-in-northwest-pakistan). The impounding of the Karakorum Highway and the trapping of entire communities behind a dammed lake could be a saving grace for the region, containing the virus or at least hampering its spread. But on the other hand, the people suffering this incident while the pandemic is already coming upon them could have devastating consequences.

Weather forecasting may potentially be of great use to us during the pandemic. Weather likely plays a big role in how COVID-19 spreads and how we can react to it. So if we know what the weather will be like in the days ahead, we may be able to make predictions about the course of the pandemic and what measures we should prepare. The weather may slow the spread of the virus by itself and make it easier for us to do so or it may worsen the spread of the virus and the illness of those infected by it and hamper our response to the pandemic. Whatever the case, we got to watch out for whatever weather is coming and figure out how it may interact with the virus outbreak.

It is very important. Pakistan is a country very prone to natural hazards. We might be used to it, but as stated before, an extreme event occurring during this pandemic can result in calamity. We just won’t be able to handle so much. Right now is a pretty dangerous time. Severe weather often occurs in Pakistan in the spring, including cyclones. But in this part of the world, the season for hazardous weather does not kick off until the arrival of the summer monsoon.

Widespread flooding frequently happens in Pakistan during the summer monsoon. It can often be very severe, such as in the years 2010-2014. When such a thing happens, people’s lives can be turned upside down and their homes can be destroyed and they can be displaced. In such circumstances, Pakistanis would not stand a chance against the COVID-19 pandemic. In a mild flood scenario, people may be stranded at home and prevented from moving about, acting to hamper the spread of the virus. But in severe flooding, social distancing, sanitation, medical care, and everything needed to fight the virus can become impossible. If large numbers of people are displaced, they can travel long distances and congregate together. Whether in a refugee camp or a small piece of land remaining above the water, people can crowd and live together very densely in filthy conditions with no ability to wash their hands or wear protective gear. People who are sick may not be able to be quarantined in any way. Their access to medical treatment may be impossible. Floods are very good at blocking access to supplies. Plus, the floods themselves can create a large number of people needing medical treatment in addition to COVID-19 patients, overburdening the healthcare system.

The healthcare system being overburdened is a huge concern, and so, unfortunate to say, disease outbreaks are very common in Pakistan during the summer monsoon, especially during floods. The mosquito-borne disease dengue is a particularly big concern. A dengue outbreak in 2011 strained the nation’s healthcare system, requiring military help and the construction of field hospitals (Sources: https://dailytimes.com.pk/477797/dengue-and-how-it-was-controlled-in-2011/, https://tribune.com.pk/story/250366/emergency-measures-army-joins-dengue-fight-on-sharifs-request/). If a major epidemic of dengue or cholera occurs while we are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences could be very bad.

The summer monsoon always plays Russian roulette with the livelihood of millions of Pakistanis. It sometimes brings less rain than usual, resulting in water shortages that farmers can’t handle. Sometimes, full-scale droughts occur. If devastating floods occur, that can also cause immense damage to the agricultural sector, as well as all kinds of other damage. Transportation can be blocked and infrastructure can be destroyed. Life can grind to a halt for millions. It is not a good idea for any of this to happen when Pakistan is in the throes of this coronavirus. Treatment for coronavirus and measures to stop its spread can be hampered, for one thing. Also, deprivation will be pushed on Pakistanis by many people falling sick and by measures being taken to stop the disease spreading. Deprivation caused by floods will be added to this.

Our biggest famine threat right now comes from the locust swarms currently ravaging Africa and Asia (Source: https://www.csis.org/analysis/africa-and-asia-have-several-hundred-billion-more-problems-besides-covid-19). Generated by heavy rainfall in East Africa, it has been going on for a long time and seems to only be getting worse, as locusts are breeding within and around Pakistan (Source: https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/international/our-children-will-starve-say-pakistan-farmers-as-locusts-breed-45118469). The summer monsoon is a good time for locusts to breed because they abound when heavy rainfall causes vegetation to bloom. Flooding could therefore bring us further locust plagues and with some crops smothered by water and other crops devoured by the insects, there could be severe food shortages. People will then have to go out and interact with each other as they work harder to get food, social distancing will be impossible, and the virus will spread. Also, locust outbreaks can often be controlled with modern techniques, but it will be hard to apply them when there is also a severe pandemic to fight.

Even if the monsoon rainfall up ahead is not severe enough to cause flooding, it could worsen the locust outbreak, along with causing outbreaks of dangerous mosquitoes. People can’t stay home. They have to go out to struggle to get food, contracting COVID-19 or a mosquito-borne disease along the way and too many people fall sick for hospitals to handle. Not a very good situation all around. There is just so much that can go wrong in the months ahead.

Right now is the beginning of April. The monsoon rains usually arrive at the end of June. That is only three months away. Some experts predict that, without strict containment measures, 20 million people in Pakistan could be infected by June of this year. (Source: Coronapocalypse! https://www.dawn.com/news/1542651.) This would truly be a catastrophic situation. Then the summer monsoon will begin shortly afterwards and if it gives us any trouble, we simply won’t be able to cope. Plus, the outbreak could expand even more and millions more could end up infected. Assuming we do adopt strict containment measures and keep the virus under control, if we have to continue doing so during the monsoon season, severe monsoon weather could make it much, much more difficult. We might be forced to yield and then cases of infection will explode.

Every single South Asian monsoon season is unpredictable. We never know what it will bring us and that is why we should be really concerned right now. The worst monsoon flooding ever to happen in Pakistan was in 2010, when a fifth of the country was flooded and 20 million people were affected. If 20 million really do fall sick from COVID-19, then a comparably severe disaster will ensue after the passage of ten years. But let us imagine that both of these disasters occurred at the exact same time. Imagine that 20 million Pakistanis are infected by June and then the 2020 summer monsoon brings the same sort of rainfall to Pakistan that the 2010 summer monsoon did. I imagine the result would be apocalyptic for our nation.

This is very unlikely to happen though. The monsoon was recently behaving in an unusual manner. We had these unprecedented floods in 2010 and then more flooding every monsoon up to 2015. But after that, the summer monsoon has been relatively calm every year. But judging by its historical patterns, the probability is very good that Pakistan will be struck with severe flooding in the months ahead.

We cannot prevent this if it were to happen. But is there any chance or any way that we can avoid the COVID-19 outbreak happening during that time so that Pakistan doesn’t have to fight a two-front war? In China, the epidemic raged for three months, starting in the beginning of January. Now, it is dying down, new local infections are rare, and life in China is starting to come back to normal. If the same thing happens here in Pakistan, then the epidemic, which began at the beginning of March, will go away in time for the arrival of the monsoon. But China successfully contained the virus by enforcing strict lockdown measures and it is a very prosperous country. Pakistan has very little capacity to do any of the things China did. PM Imran Khan has said that locking down Pakistan will cause more harm through impoverishment than the virus will, especially with the economic problems and rising food prices happening right now. So it is expected that the virus outbreak will progress to a very high level in Pakistan. That means that it should go on for a long time.

Now, hold on a minute, the epidemic going on for a lengthy period of time is also what everyone is clamoring for. This is the whole “flatten the curve” protocol. With proper medical treatment, people have a high chance of recovering from being ill with COVID-19. But the pandemic is wreaking so much havoc because it is causing so many people to be infected so rapidly that healthcare systems around the world cannot cope. So if we slow the spread of the virus, the burden on the medical sector is kept low, even if it persists for a long time until the virus runs out of fresh people to target or a medical breakthrough that can fight it is achieved. Therefore, if Pakistan successfully flattens the curve, the coronavirus outbreak will be kept under low intensity, but it may continue going on and on for a long time, most likely well into the monsoon season. If that season brings severe flooding or some other disturbance, everything could break down and Pakistan will have a convergence of calamities on its own.

(Note: Reading the two paragraphs above might be confusing, as the first one says lack of containment measures will prolong the epidemic and the next one says that it is containment measures that will prolong the epidemic. But there is an explanation of the confusion several paragraphs down. Also, by the end of this article, you will hopefully understand the perplexing nature of the subject.)

We may therefore be standing on the cusp of a profound quandary. If we let the virus run rampant, it will infect huge numbers of Pakistanis in a short period of time. Medical services will be overwhelmed and many, many people will die. But the virus will have probably run its course by the end of June.

If we put roadblocks in front of the virus, then the number of people who fall ill every day is very low, so hospitals can take in the steady stream of patients and save many lives. But this goes on for months on end and then the monsoon season begins. If it brings widespread flooding to Pakistan, then “flattening of the curve” will come to an end as we cannot fight the pandemic and the floods at the same time. This will cause the spread of the virus to skyrocket, leading to a flood of infections at the same time the country is dealing with a flood of water. Locusts may be swarming everywhere and we cannot fight them effectively because we are fighting coronavirus at the same time. Mosquitoes may be biting everyone, clogging the hospitals even harder. We cannot deliver essential supplies and lifesaving medicine to people across the floodwaters while flood-stricken people who desperately wade through these waters will spread COVID-19. Pakistan is smothered under the combined burden of all these events and, in the end, many, many more people could end up dead and the survivors will be left to struggle in a devastated nation.

So do we flatten the curve or do we let it grow? The idea of foregoing “flattening the curve” has already been considered elsewhere during this pandemic. The alternative is achieving “herd immunity”. It involves letting the infection spread unhindered and Britain originally planned to do this. The idea is that only a small minority of people will die if infected by the virus, but they all run a big chance of contracting the virus because everyone around them is being infected and is passing on the virus. The virus is spreading through the general population because they lack immunity, but they will gain immunity to it after recovering from the illness. So the epidemic, if unhindered, will run out of steam after a short period of time. During that short period of time, people who are especially vulnerable if they get infected can be kept well-protected. Afterwards, they will be protected by the herd immunity of their country.

Sounds like a plan crazy enough to work, but by now, it has been generally rejected as too risky. But in Pakistan, where we have to deal with the contingency of a very erratic rainy season from June to September, is it possible that “flattening the curve” is actually the riskier option? Perhaps if we go with seeking to achieve herd immunity, we can make the coronavirus outbreak as brief as possible. Then, when the summer monsoon arrives, we can concentrate on preparing for whatever trouble it brings us without having also to deal with the coronavirus. If done right, we can successfully minimize the number of people who die or are seriously harmed.

Flattening the curve could be considered as being for rich countries, while a country like Pakistan may conceivably have to go with the tougher option of herd immunity. Imran Khan’s rationale is that the country has to keep working. Now, the people who are most vulnerable to coronavirus are the elderly and those with health problems. Such people usually do not work anyway and are a minority in Pakistan where there are so many young people. Our strategy may to identify everybody who is at high risk and have them isolated from the rest of society. All the young, healthy people can continue working and will be trusted to come down with only mild symptoms. Once enough of them have been infected and recovered to achieve herd immunity, the partial lockdown can be ended. Hopefully, this can all be finished before the possibility of floods.

But not containing the spread of the virus is still a drastic course of action. Perhaps we should only resort to trying to make the epidemic end by July if there are indications that the upcoming monsoon season will be hazardous. And just when you thought this year 2020 couldn’t be getting any worse, there are. Floods in Pakistan often occur when there is a La Nina weather condition in the Pacific Ocean. Many meteorologists predict that a La Nina system could develop by late summer or fall. One meteorologist, Dr. Michael Ventrice (http://www.atmos.albany.edu/student/ventrice/documents/Resume.pdf), suggests that it could be the strongest La Nina since the one of 2010-2012 (which caused those severe floods in Pakistan).

(Source: https://www.nbc12.com/2020/03/31/la-nia-may-develop-by-fall-could-mean-active-intense-hurricane-season-ahead/)

Clearly, there are some very dangerous times right now for us. And the worst part is our inability to determine what will happen. There is a lot of uncertainty about the outcomes of whatever option we take. We should expect that containing the virus means the outbreak will last a very long time and letting it spread means the outbreak will last a short amount of time. But in China, where they were containing it, they were able to relax after just two months and the outbreak, so far, seems to have died out. Meanwhile, it is Pakistan not being able to suppress the spread of the virus that is supposed to lead to 20 million infections three months from now if. The fact is that the same phenomenon may lead to different outcomes depending on the situation. Also, in the “20 million by June” scenario, the epidemic might just end there. So there are no more new cases of the coronavirus during the monsoon but the nation will have to take care of a lot of sick people. Also, monsoon floods might add in extra input that leads to even more people being infected. But this is a really big question that we need to resolve. Does containing the spread prolong or shorten the epidemic, or more to the point, where does it do what?

If Pakistan does what China does and achieves the same outcome China did, it would be the best scenario. As few people as possible would be infected and the monsoon season will hopefully be coronavirus-free. But it seems that Pakistan can’t do it. It is impossible. What we could try is deliberately getting most of the population infected very quickly. Maybe we can go and inject the virus into millions of Pakistanis (who are carefully chosen). But, really, it is just very drastic.

If Pakistan does not have hopes of making the epidemic come to an end before the monsoon season is in full swing, then at least we can prepare for a combined coronavirus-monsoon crisis starting right now. A long period of preparation appears to be key. If countries around the world started a full-scale response to the coronavirus as soon as news of its outbreak in China came in late January, then they probably would not be suffering so much right now. Pakistan did not do anything during the whole month of February. Let us not make the same mistake right now. We need to be concerned about any eventuality and we need to build-up our capacity to respond to them. Then, we might be able to respond effectively to disasters possibly coming in the months ahead. We must not be complacent and decide to respond to problems only when they come. At the very least, thinking of solutions to the problems described in this article is a really hard task in itself, so the longer we have the time to do it, the better it is, so we better start thinking now.

Our best strategy, as always, is to hope for the best and expect the worst. Let us hope that nature remains friendly for the duration of the epidemic and doesn’t give us further concerns to worry about, that the rains come in the right manner to allow our agricultural harvests to bloom, and that any bad weather that does happen only has the effect of confining people to their homes and to their local areas so as to restrict the spread of the virus. Let us expect that weather-related disasters could come along and strain our country’s emergency response capacity to the limit, that the locust infestations will get worse as time goes on and produce a severe food crisis, that disasters will turn people into refugees that act as the ideal conduit for the virus and prevent us from delivering the means to fight it, and that the projected La Nina will bring back the monsoon catastrophes of 2010-2012 at a time when our nation is already fighting some of the worst kinds of crises possible.

In the meantime, let us remain calm. We got to think rationally about our situation and our outlook and all of Pakistan has to be united in getting things under control. We are already struggling a lot but much worse is likely to come, both with the current trajectory of the virus and with other circumstances coinciding with it. We must not regard this pandemic as existing in a vacuum, as being an issue separate from all our other issues. When you have a crisis of a nature and a magnitude like the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of different events and circumstances, including other disasters, are going to interact with it and could create a sort of multi-faceted crisis that Pakistan needs to mount an integrated response to.

We may think that because the coronavirus is such a big menace, it should be our
foremost concern and everything else can take a backseat, but actually, this is a time that we especially have to be on the guard against other menaces. We are going through a time of crises. We need to think of a broad strategy to handle what we are faced with. Speed is of the essence, above all else.

These are stormy days. Sitting and listening to the rainfall and thunderstorms outside can give one either a calming sensation or a sense of gloomy foreboding. Our prospects are very uncertain. Maybe we don’t realize that enough. We don’t know if anything that happens makes things better or makes things worse, but we do know that we have to act. As we brace ourselves for the massive storm that is the pandemic, experiencing these real storms should be a reminder for us of how just about anything can happen and we have to get ready for anything. We might have many things coming together to create a perfect storm. If we are to keep our people safe in these dangerous times, if Pakistan is to weather whatever storm comes our way, let us make sure that we are one step ahead.

About the Author:
Shahzeb Khan is a journalist, environment activist, and co-director at PPLDM.