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Test the air, taste the fury

November 16, 2017

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BETWEEN 2010 and 2015, Pakistan experienced a rain-related flood every monsoon season, yet not much changed in how we responded to this, or even how we discussed successive events. Millions of people were displaced from their homes in each event, with the largest number in 2010 when the NDMA estimated that about 20 million people were affected in all. The number staggers the mind, so much so that most people simply stare at it in bewilderment with little to no idea of how to make sense of it.

Through these years, technology existed that could, with 90 per cent probability of success, forecast an approaching flood with two weeks’ warning. Pakistan’s Met Department was able to issue 48-hour forecasts at best, primarily because they were using empirical observations to generate their forecasts in those days.

More advanced flood-warning systems use modelled forecasts. These take millions of data points from meteorological developments and surface stream flows in rivers and water courses on a daily basis and process them through a complex model to determine the likelihood of an approaching flood. The technology, developed by scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, found no takers in Pakistan, and was eventually abandoned.

Pakistan’s crops have been badly affected by the climate, putting our future security in the balance.

Throughout these years, our water conversation remained focused on building more dams, that is, on more brick-and-mortar infrastructure. The floods were written off as a divine event before which human beings, particularly governments, were helpless, and therefore no responsibility arose for those in power to do anything about it. ‘What can we do about floods?’ they would say when asked.

Well, one thing would be to increase your forecast times. Another thing would be to build a superior-alerting system, like Bangladesh had done, to use SMS messages to send out advance flood alerts. Third would be to manage land better so that there were predetermined areas marked as floodplains and those marked as high ground where the population was supposed to be moved once stream flows in a given water course showed high likelihood of flooding.

Instead, our weather forecasting system received hardly any investment, with many of the westward-pointing radars out of order, and large areas such as in the mountains of the north, not covered at all, a fact that led to the flash floods in Chitral in July 2015 without any warning whatsoever. Those floods, triggered by a cloudburst, triggered multiple simultaneous glacial lake outbursts as well, sending devastation across the district with almost unimaginable ferocity. Every house, road and bridge in the entire district was destroyed.

It took almost seven years from the catastrophic flood of 2010 to begin work on an early warning system for the northern areas in the upper Indus basin, that is particularly vulnerable as well as particularly important for flood forecasting. In 2010, for example, subsequent research on the weather system that caused the floods, and done by the same team that produced the flood-forecasting model for the Indus basin, showed that cloud structures typical of the Bay of Bengal had travelled across the Gangetic plain and collided with the mountains at the point where the Hindu Kush and the Karakorams intersect. The collision resulted in a massive quantity of water being offloaded from the cloud system in one quick go.

By some calculations, it appeared that the quantity of water being carried by the cloud system was equal almost to many times the water stored in Tarbela Dam. In short, what we saw in 2010 was the equivalent of multiple Tarbela Dams bursting at the same time.

Yet, at the end of this period, in December 2015, Pakistan took an agenda to the Paris COP 21 summit that was bereft of substance, and talked mostly of “affordable sources of power generation, development of infrastructure and enabling industry” for what it called “development”. An earlier draft, which had been developed with input from some civil society groups as well as the government, failed to win the approval of various ministries and had to be scrapped. Pakistan missed the deadline for submission of its key Intended Nationally Determined Contributions document for the event, prior to that conference.

The minister of climate change (a rather comic designation if you ask me) was appointed weeks before the event, then quickly transferred out. The ministry was headless for almost three months prior to Zahid Hamid’s appointment, since his predecessor had to resign in August 2015 (in an interview with the BBC, he had claimed that former ISI chief Zaheer ul Islam wanted to overthrow the government during the days of the dharna).

Can we give politics a rest for a moment? Ok, let’s change that to can the minister of climate change try and focus on climate change for a moment? The devastation from the flash floods in Chitral was still being assessed when this statement was given by the minister for climate change by the way.

The purpose behind raking up this history is to put a little perspective into the heads addled on the headlines these days as another important climate conference gets under way in Bonn. Pakistan’s crops have been badly affected by the climate, putting our future security in the balance. Events like monsoon floods and heatwaves are increasing in their severity, and the smog is another reminder that natural phenomena can bring life to a standstill. Such is the elemental force of their fury.

There is some progress in recognising the importance of climate change and other natural phenomena, if a few reports from a handful of NGOs and a couple of conferences are anything to go by. In truth, by now this should be one of the top priorities, especially given how every year brings some type of natural phenomenon or another that kills and displaces in large numbers, or shuts down life across a vast swathe of the country. What will it take to wake up to this reality?

The writer is a member of staff.
khurram.husain@gmail.com
Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2017