When a natural disaster of massive proportions occurs, it is only natural to wonder why. And, perhaps even more importantly, how can we prevent such devastating events in the future? In August of this year, the world watched in horror as Pakistan was struck by unprecedented floods that rendered over one million people displaced and around 1,400 dead.

The catastrophe has been compared to the 2010 floods that left almost 20 percent of Pakistan’s population homeless, and destroyed homes, crops and infrastructure, and leaving millions vulnerable to malnutrition and waterborne diseases.

Let’s take a look at some common explanations behind why these floods happened, and what we can do to try and prevent them from happening again.

Why was this year’s flooding so ‘catastrophic’ in Sindh?

Sindh, which is one of largest and densely populated provinces of Pakistan, was hit the hardest by flooding this year. This makes a lot of sense when we look at the topography of the region. Sindh is a low-lying area and the only ‘outlet’ for water coming from the upper parts of almost the entire country.

During the monsoon season, which typically lasts from July to September, the Arabian Sea warms up and causes heavy rainfall all over Pakistan. This rainfall is then channelled into the rivers and low-lying areas as floodwater. The Indus River and its tributaries in Sindh are very active during the monsoon season and, therefore, not only carry this excess water downstream, but also cause a lot of flooding in the coastal areas and on both sides of the river.

The frequency of floods in Sindh

Floods in Sindh are happening more frequently and with greater intensity than before. There are multiple reasons behind this phenomenon, for instance, climate change. There has been an increase in extreme and erratic weather patterns; and it has also been recorded that the frequency of extreme precipitation events has increased in the last few decades. Extreme precipitation events occur when the amount of rain in one day exceeds the expected amount.

In Sindh, the number of extreme precipitation events are increasing every year. The second reason for increased flooding in Sindh is the increased flow of water into the province due to melting of glaciers and the flow of water into Sindh from Afghanistan, China, India and Tajikistan has also increased.

The other reasons include low and extreme land elevation, the high rate of urbanisation, poor water management practices, low-lying land, lack of river flow management, none or few flood barriers and dams, and weak governance. These are all the main reasons that the southern province of the country has been facing devastation frequently for a few years.

Climate change is real and it’s impacting us right now

An aerial view shows a flooded residential area in Balochistan province.—AFP
An aerial view shows a flooded residential area in Balochistan province.—AFP

You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that climate change is real. We can feel its impact in many different ways, including extreme weather events that are more frequent and intense, putting both people and the environment at risk.

In the last few years, we have seen an increase in the frequency of extreme weather events such as cyclones, floods, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires. Globally, the years 2011–2018 were the warmest on record. Rainfall patterns are also changing, with wet areas getting wetter and dry areas getting drier. Coastal areas are particularly vulnerable as sea levels are also rising.

Is climate change behind the heavy rainfall?

Certainly there is a link between the two. Rising sea levels, increasing temperatures and changes in precipitation patterns are factors connected to climate change. In short, the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, will likely increase as the climate changes.

There is also some evidence that certain types of extreme weather events, such as heavy rainfall and flooding, are happening more frequently throughout the world than they were before. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that the frequency and severity of extreme events will increase with time and change in the climate. In this case, heavy rains have been responsible for causing the floodwaters that wreaked havoc in Sindh.

Glacial melt

We have been witnessing extremely hot summers since the past decade. Every summer, several heatwave spells occur, leaving many sick and causing some to die.

The heatwaves also coincided with another extraordinary event — a depression, or a system of intense low air pressure, in the Arabian Sea, which brought heavy rain to Pakistan’s coastal provinces as early as June.

Every year, these heatwaves leave behind other devastating effects as well, such as the melting of glaciers in the northern mountainous regions. This increases the amount of water flowing into tributaries that eventually make their way into the Indus River.

The Indus River is Pakistan’s largest river, and runs the length of the country from north to south, feeding towns, cities and large swathes of agricultural land along the way. It isn’t clear exactly how much excess glacial melt has flowed into rivers this year, but it is accepted that some high-altitude glaciated regions in July noticed high flows and fed into the Indus. Several glacial lakes have burst through the dams of ice that normally restrain them, releasing a dangerous rush of water.

Data shows that Pakistan has received 190 percent more rainfall during this monsoon: Balochistan received 430 percent of its normal monsoon rains, and Sindh received 460 percent.

Land development practices are at fault

Another possible cause of the flooding is that the natural floodplain of the rivers in the coastal areas has been altered due to land development practices. This means that the areas near the rivers have been taken and built up, and no longer function as a natural floodplain.

Such illegal practices can put people at risk in the case of a flood, just like now. Hundreds of houses have been swept away with the floodwater and thousands of helpless livestock have lost their lives. Naturally, the riverine areas that have been built up at the coastal areas of Sindh are hit harder. If a river is blocked or diverted, it can cause flooding in areas that were not previously at risk.

Illegal construction and sewage disposal

Some experts also claim that illegal construction and the disposal of sewage in the rivers made the flooding worse. If you wonder how, well, not every part of Sindh, but a majority of areas have been taken over by landlords and other authorities for their own interest, leading the natural course of water to disperse elsewhere. Therefore, it is logical to see illegal construction playing a vital role in blocking the flow of water. This can cause the water level or rainwater to rise in the surrounding areas as it finds no way to go.

The extent of damage this year

Residents move their belongings from their submerged houses after heavy monsoon rainfall in the Rajanpur district, Punjab, on August 24.— AFP
Residents move their belongings from their submerged houses after heavy monsoon rainfall in the Rajanpur district, Punjab, on August 24.— AFP

More than one-third of the country is still submerged and at least 33 million people are affected. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) puts the number of affected districts at 72 out of a total 160.

The NDMA estimates damage to more than 5,000km (3,100 miles) of roads, over 1.1 million houses partially or fully destroyed, and the death of over 800,000 livestock, often people’s only livelihood.

The southern province of Sindh remains the worst affected.

As of August 30, NDMA said at least 405 people, including 160 children, died there. More than 14 million people in the province are “badly affected”, of which only 377,000 are living in camps right now.

The south-western province of Balochistan — Pakistan’s largest by area, but also the most impoverished — is also reeling.

Where the number of damaged and destroyed houses rose from some 29,800 to more than 61,000 as of September 2, 2022 (according to https://reliefweb.int/).

The government’s role

We all know that no one was prepared for such a horrendous natural disaster or, let’s admit, for the extent to which it affected the province of Sindh.

In a disaster, a government’s role is to provide immediate assistance to those affected. This means having a plan in place to provide shelter, food and water to those who are in danger, as well as a plan to help evacuate people who need to leave their homes. The government must also have a plan in place to warn people about any upcoming danger. This is so that those who are in the danger zone have time to escape and can save their loved ones, and others can be prepared and ready to help those in need.

How to prevent another similar catastrophe

One of the best ways to prevent flooding is by implementing better land development practices. This includes strict laws to not allow building on the floodplain, so that the rivers should flow freely and building levees to divert the flow of water away from populated areas. Building dams and reservoirs is another way to prevent flooding, but only if they are fully functioning and not too large. Large reservoirs can cause flooding in the surrounding areas if they are not managed correctly.

Better water management can help prevent flooding by making sure that there is not too much water being extracted from the ground and that the water used for irrigation is properly recycled. Having a warning system in place to inform people when flooding is imminent is also vital.

This year’s floods were unprecedented in terms of both the amount of rainfall and the number of people affected. However, this does not mean that they were completely unexpected. In fact, we can look back at previous flooding events in Pakistan to see where improvements can be made. As a result, there are plenty of things that can be done to prevent the devastation of flooding from happening again. With better land development practices, better water management and a government that is better prepared, we can make sure that these floods become an extreme event of the past.

Published in Dawn, Young World, September 17th, 2022

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