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Rain, rain go away

August 27, 2013

Experts say that in the topsy-turvy world of climate change, rainy seasons will get rainier while dry seasons will tend to become drier. Floods and droughts will become more frequent, according to research based on climate simulations of future warming on the planet. In a recent report in Nature Geoscience, scientists from the University of Taipei looked at rainfall data between 1979 and 2010 and found that the wet seasons were already clearly getting wetter, at the rate of almost a millimeter a day per century, while the dry seasons became drier with just over half a millimeter less in rainfall per day per century.

Certainly, a warmer world (caused by increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere) means more evaporation, and more precipitation. The scientists in Taiwan say: “Even if the total amount of annual rainfall does not change significantly, the enhancement in the seasonal precipitation cycle could have marked consequences for the frequency of droughts and floods”.

Scientists from the University of Adelaide have also confirmed the link between extreme rainfall and rising atmospheric temperatures in their report in the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate. They looked at daily rainfall figures from 8,326 observing stations that had collected at least 30 years of data between the years 1900 and 2009. They then used standard statistical tests to make sure that the data told them what it seemed to be telling them. They confirmed that global warming has begun to deliver a rainier world – “If rainfall events continue to intensify, we can expect to see floods occurring more frequently around the world.”

In Pakistan, the link between global warming and flooding is becoming more apparent each year as the country continues to face devastating floods during the monsoon season. According to Dr Qamar uz Zaman Chaudhry, Senior Advisor Climate Change at Asia CDKN and lead author of Pakistan's National Climate Change Policy (NCCP), “We can expect frequent monsoon flooding in future also because of climate change”. He explains further, “Actually if we want to link any single flood event to climate change then it is not easy but when we look at the trend of these extreme events in last 5-10 years then it is easier to link these flood events to climate change”.

In the National Climate Change Policy that was approved by the federal cabinet (after consultations and inputs from all the provinces and territories) and launched in February 2013, there is a section on: “Pakistan’s Vulnerability to Climate Change Threats”. Here, amongst the important climate change threats to Pakistan is listed: “Considerable increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, coupled with erratic monsoon rains causing frequent and intense floods and droughts”.

The policy clearly states the threat of flooding caused by climate change and even offers solutions. According to Dr Chaudhry, “I believe the policy is more than comprehensive – even if you take just 40 per cent and implement it properly, it can take care of expected floods in the future”. The policy has recommended additional water storages on the main rivers to absorb the floodwater. “For example, just by enhancing the capacity of large dams like Mangla Dam these kinds of floods could be avoided. This year the raised Mangla Dam reservoir managed all the floods, despite heavy rains in the eastern rivers. Hardly any water is being released into Jhelum River as floodwater by Mangla Dam. If we have additional water storages over the Indus River, the water can be managed and future flooding can be avoided in Southern Punjab and Sindh”.

Unfortunately, the NCCP is currently not being implemented – in fact one of the first things the current PML (N) government did when it came into power after the elections in May was to demote the Ministry of Climate Change to the status of a division as part of a governmental drive to reduce the size of the federal cabinet. It now now stands in the legislative domain of the provinces, with no cooperation between the centre and the provinces to deal with the menace.

According to Dr Chaudhry, “The NCCP is not being implemented because probably there are many other challenges they are focusing on and not much attention is being given to climate change issues. In Pakistan, climate change issues get the lowest priority despite all the devastating floods and warnings. It is just not being taken seriously”.

The country urgently needs early warning systems at the district level and other Disaster Risk Reduction activities, but as Dr Chaudhry points out, “During the last three, four years nothing much has been added in terms of early warning systems. Normally countries would use devastating floods like the ones that occurred in 2010 as an opportunity to improve early warning systems and other systems but our country has not been investing enough in this area”.

The picture that is emerging according to the latest science reports is that we need to prepare for a “warmer and wetter region”. In a recent study in the journal Nature Geoscience, (which has been doing the rounds of various media portals), scientists say that in two of the region’s most important river basins – the Ganges and the Indus – water levels are unlikely to drop over the next century. This contrasts with earlier studies suggesting water levels in these rivers would drop significantly by 2050, threatening the livelihoods of millions.

The new report, “Rising river flows throughout the 21st century in two Himalayan glacierised watersheds”, says that in some parts of the Himalayan region, river flow losses as a result of less glacial melt water will be compensated by an increase in monsoon rains.

Marc Bierkens, professor of Hydrology at Utrecht and a report co-author, says that the latest research findings were the result of using a more sophisticated ice model together with a new set of climate models and the fact that, especially in the western Himalayas, the increase in rainfall with height is larger than previously thought.

To understand the impact of climate change on river discharge, researchers created computer models of glacier movements and water balance in both the Indus and the Ganges watersheds. In the western watershed – in Baltoro in Pakistan where the Indus has its source – the climate is dryer and colder and has much larger glaciers. The models show discharges in the area are increasing, mainly as a result of more glacial melting. Such melting, says the study, will peak around 2070 and thereafter drop but will be compensated for by an increase in precipitation.

For the past few years, Pakistan has topped the list of the Global Climate Risk Index produced by Germanwatch, an NGO organisation that works on global equity issues. In 2010, Pakistan was listed as the number one country in the world affected by climate related disasters; in 2011 it was ranked as number three (the 2012 ranking will be coming out soon).

Some experts say that climate change impacts could cost Pakistan’s economy up to $14 billion a year and needs to be urgently dealt with.

“The country cannot run away from the effects of a changing climate,” said Malik Amin Aslam, a former Minister of State for the Environment and currently advisor to the UNDP.

Sadly, that is exactly what the current Nawaz Sharif led government is doing, hoping the floods will eventually “go away”. But what about next year, and the year after that?