Pakistan’s Latest Crisis: Another Monsoon out of Bounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146588/unusual-weather-leads-to-ozone-low-over-the-arctic).
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 (https://www.npr.org/2020/07/04/887287712/at-least-15-feared-dead-after-torrential-rains-sweep-through-southern-japan).
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 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/heat-wave-across-united-states-multiple-weeks/).
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 (https://journals.ametsoc.org/jhm/article/13/1/392/70376/The-2010-Pakistan-Flood-and-Russian-Heat-Wave).

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.

A Dangerously Uncertain Summer Monsoon Lies Ahead

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